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Word on the Beat: NAEP

What reporters need to know about the ‘nation’s report card’.

Photo credit: Flickr/Neeta Lind

Back to Skills

New achievement data for the nation’s 12th graders shows a slide in reading proficiency and no change in math skills,according to results released Oct 28. Overall, 37% of students scored at or above the proficient level for reading. In math, just a quarter met or exceeded the proficiency benchmark. (The assessment was administered in 2019, well before the pandemic upended U.S. education. Many educators and analysts are predicting significant learning loss as a result.)

The new results follow sliding or stagnant scores for both 4th and 8th graders in math and reading last fall, and declines in history and geography for 8th graders last spring.

Among 12th graders, the nation’s lowest-performing students – those scoring in the bottom quartile — saw their scores drop in both reading and math compared to their peers who took the exam in 2015. Black and brown students continue to struggle more on the proficiency assessments than their white classmates. And generally, girls outperformed boys.

Alongside the national snapshot for 12th graders in math and reading, results are broken out by suburban, rural, and city schools, as well as by students’ gender, socioeconomic status, race, and special education status. The 2-point drop in the average national reading score was largely due to weaker performance by students in bottom quartile for proficiency, meaning the gap widened between them and their high-achieving peers. Indeed, this year’s results mark an unwelcome milestone: the 30% of students who scored below basic proficiency in reading is higher than in any other year since the assessment was first given in 1969.

The NAEP report card reveals trends over time in student achievement across a variety of subjects, plus offers breakdowns by race, ethnicity, poverty, and other factors. The centerpiece of NAEP is the results every two years for 4th and 8th graders in reading and mathematics. The tests in other subjects occur less frequently. Also, the 12th grade NAEP exams in reading and math are given every four years.

Here’s what reporters need to know about the assessment system and its implications.

What it means: The National Assessment for Educational Progress, sometimes referred to as “the nation’s report card,” is given every two years to a representative sample of the nation’s students in grades 4 and 8 to gauge achievement in reading, writing, and mathematics. Twelfth graders also are tested on roughly the same schedule. Specialized subject tests, including science and civics, are administered, on a rotating basis at all three grade levels, but are less frequent. NAEP is a low-stakes test — meaning it doesn’t appear on a student’s transcript or impact their ability to advance to the next grade or graduate.

Why it matters: NAEP is the only assessment system designed specifically to track student achievement nationally over the long term. The test questions are designed to measure what students know and are able to do. And the questions stay relatively the same over time for greater consistency in comparisons, according to the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) which oversees NAEP. The data can serve as an important backdrop for educators and researchers in evaluating public schools, and looking at trends by student demographics, including geographic location, socioeconomic status, race, special education status, and gender.

Who’s talking about it: In a recent blog post, Michael Petrilli, president of the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said that a decline in 12th graders NAEP scores wasn’t necessarily something to blame on President Trump’s policies or on public schools more broadly. This year’s high school seniors were students in districts that experienced significant cuts to funding in the wake of the last recession, Petrilli said, and that likely had an impact on their academic learning in the early years that serve as building blocks later on.

But Peggy Carr, associate commissioner of assessment at NCES, which oversees NAEP, was blunt in her call with reporters to discuss both the new results and multiyear trends. “The decline in twelfth-grade reading scores resembles the declines in fourth- and eighth-graders’ reading scores, where we saw the largest declines among the lowest-performing students,” Carr said. “This pattern of decline concentrated among lower-performing students – across grades and across subjects – is a troubling indication that too many students are falling behind.” One explanation for the dip in high school scores is that more students are sticking it out through graduation. A higher dropout rate means fewer seniors around to be tested, Carr said. “

There are concerns that scores on these kinds of assessments will only continue to slide in the wake of interrupted instruction during the coronavirus pandemic. The National Assessment Governing Board has already announced plans to scale back its testing for the current academic year, including skipping the 8th grade civics and history test that was previously on the biennial schedule. And testing officials have estimated it would cost an additional $50 million to carry out NAEP testing with the necessary extra staff and social distancing required to meet pandemic-era health mandates.

To be sure, NAEP results offer a snapshot of U.S. student achievement. NAEP results offer a snapshot of U.S. student achievement.The most recent results in math and reading for the nation’s 4th and 8th graders — released in the fall of 2019 – showed troubling declines or stagnant scores in most areas. Alongside the national snapshot were state-by-state results, plus scores for 27 urban school systems participating in a pilot program. Mississippi was singled out for praise as the only state to show gains in its reading scores, and for leading the country in gains in both 4th grade reading and math.

What to remember: Correlation is not causation. As Morgan Polikoff, an education professor at the University of Southern California put it, “friends don’t let friends misuse NAEP data.” The National Assessment Governing Board will be the first to say that the test results cannot be used to gauge the impact or effectiveness of a particular educational intervention. (That, of course, won’t stop critics of specific programs and advocates of others from doing precisely that.)

That being said, because the assessments aren’t linked to any local or state learning standards, NAEP can be used as a barometer to compare with results from states’ own tests, especially when it comes to reading and math. Several studies have compared levels of student achievement between state tests and NAEP, often finding large gaps that serve as red flags that the state expectations for student performance may be lower than those of NAEP.

Want to know more? Here’s The 74’s Mark Keierleber’s writeup on the new results, and Lauren Camera’s take for U.S. News & World Report.

You can catch a replay of a February 2020 EWA webinar on Stories You’re Missing From ‘The Nation’s Report Card.’And check out EWA’s Topics Page on Standards & Testing for the latest news, research, and more.

*This post is periodically updated to reflect the most recent news, reports, and data.