Blog: The Educated Reporter

Word on the Beat: NAEP
What reporters need to know about the 'nation's report card'

New achievement data for the nation’s 8th graders showed a slide in history and geography, and no gains in civics, according to results released April 23. That follows sliding or stagnant scores for both 4th and 8th graders in math and reading last fall.

Alongside the national snapshot for history, geography, and civics were results broken out by suburban, rural, and city schools, as well as performance by subgroups of students including gender, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity. The 3-point drop in the national geography score was largely due to weaker performance by eighth-graders in the bottom quartile for proficiency, meaning the gap widened between them and their high-achieving peers.

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 reading and mathematics. The tests in other subjects occur less frequently.

Here’s what reporters need to know about the assessment 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: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos called the newest NAEP results — from an exam administered in 2018 — “inexcusable and stark. … In the real world, this means students don’t know what the Lincoln-Douglas debates were about, nor can they discuss the significance of the Bill of Rights, or point out basic locations on a map.”

The flat score on the national civics test comes at a time when the subject is gaining momentum as a priority among educators and policymakers. There are also concerns that scores on these kinds of assessments will only continue to slide in the wake of interrupted instruction during the coronavirus pandemic, which has shuttered the majority of the nation’s public schools. But while the schedule for national and international assessments has been reconfigured for the coming year, it’s good news that they haven’t been canceled, said Peggy G. Carr, the associate commissioner of assessment at NCES, which oversees NAEP. “We think it is important, more important than ever, for us to have a sense of the impact of COVID-19 on students’ performance and achievement,” Carr told reporters during a conference call. Barring circumstances such as schools remaining closed into the next academic year, “we will be there.”

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 Education Week’s take on the latest results for 8th graders, and the 2019 decision to streamline NAEP testing as a cost-saving measure. 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. 



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