Blog: The Educated Reporter

The Nation’s Report Card: A Slow Climb Up a Steep Hill

The “Nation’s Report Card” is out today for fourth and eighth graders in reading and math, and while there are some positive trends over the past two decades, a significant achievement gap persists among minorities and for America’s students when compared with their peers internationally.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is administered every two years to a representative sampling of students. For this year’s exams in math and reading, 377,000 fourth graders and 342,000 eighth graders were tested. Because each state otherwise uses its own mix of assessments, NAEP (along with the SAT and ACT college entrance exams) represents one of the few ways of making comparisons nationally on student performance. You can find a useful overview of the findings by my EWA colleague Mikhail Zinshteyn over at EdMedia Commons.

Among the key takeaways:

  • Math scores rose by 1 point for both grade levels when compared with the 2011 results. Eighth graders also saw their reading scores climb by 2 points while fourth-grade reading remained flat. 

  • In 19 states and jurisdictions, students were more proficient in math than the national average in both grades 4 and 8. In 15 states and jurisdictions, scores were higher than the national average in reading for both grades 4 and 8. 

  • Black and Hispanic students continue to lag significantly behind their white classmates.

Gains on NAEP tend to be incremental, and that’s why a wider-lens view is relevant, said Daria Hall, director of K-12 policy development for The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank  that advocates for closing the achievement and opportunity gaps.

“We do want to be careful to acknowledge there have been really big gains on behalf of all groups of students, including students of color, from 1990 through 2011,” Hall told me. “If you look at the things that are really meaningful to parents and the public, we’ve also reduced the percentage of students who are performing at below-basic level. That’s not good enough, but it is important.”

A couple of things to think about when considering this year’s results, and NAEP in general:

Correlation is not causation: The statistician’s refrain is particularly apt here, and Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which oversees NAEP, will be one of the first to say it. “NAEP is very good at telling us where we stand,” Buckley said Wednesday in a call with reporters. “But it’s not very good at telling us why. It’s very difficult in a study like this to tease that out.” (Check out Stephen Sawchuk of Education Week for a trenchant warning about misuses of NAEP data by education advocates seeking to bolster their own positions.)

“There will be people in the press saying why Massachusetts scored so high is because of ‘a,’ ‘b,’ and ‘c,’” said Tom Loveless, a former teacher, Harvard professor, and currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “They have no clue. They’re not social scientists, and NAEP data cannot be used that way.”

That doesn’t mean NAEP results aren’t useful, Loveless said. The data is scientifically sound, and provides an important picture – albeit a moment-in-time snapshot – of how students performed.

In three places – the District of Columbia, Tennessee and the Department of Defense schools — test scores went up in both subject areas and at all grade levels. In D.C. and Tennessee, math scores jumped 7 percentage points in two years. When asked by a reporter if those kinds of gains should be viewed with suspicion, Buckley said “they’re not outside the range of reasonable results – it means good things are happening in these states.”

While it’s impossible to know what changes in the district and Tennessee might have influenced the NAEP scores, we do know a few things they have in common. In both places, which serve large populations of high-needs students, there’s been intensive effort in recent years to focus on teacher quality. A recent study suggests the D.C. teacher-evaluation model is reshaping the workforce. And Tennessee is attracting national attention for its efforts to turnaround underperforming schools.

Younger is better: The long-term trends on NAEP show America’s strongest students continue to be in the lower grades. “Our younger students are more internationally competitive,” Buckley said. “The 15-year-old in the U.S. is more or less standing still … while our … international competitors are advancing.” Achievement begins falling off somewhere in the transition from elementary to middle school, and then takes a sharper dip as kids move on to high school. Again, NAEP doesn’t tell us why this is happening, but it’s certainly strong evidence of where attention needs to be directed.

So what’s next? Arne Duncan, in a call with reporters Wednesday, said if the nation wants to close the achievement gap, there will need to be meaningful investments in early childhood education, something the Obama administration is now pressing for in Congress.

“The only way we are ever going to significantly, radically close the achievement gap is to stop playing catch up … and dramatically increase access to high quality early childhood education,” Duncan said.

Have a question, comment or concern for the Educated Reporter? Email EWA public editor Emily Richmond at Follow her on Twitter: @EWAEmily.