Blog: The Educated Reporter

The Nation’s Report Card: Up In Math, But Stuck On Same Page in Reading

The nation’s fourth and eighth graders continued a steady trend of improved performance in mathematics, but reading scores were unchanged from the 2009 results.(Click here for the NAEP web site and here for the Associated Press story.)

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “the Nation’s Report Card,”is administered every two years. When NAEP started in 1990, participation was voluntary. By 2003 it was mandatory that all states allow the test to be administered to a statistical sampling of its students.

I took part in a web press conference for the release of the NAEP results, and here were some of the highlights that jumped out at me:

  • The achievement gap among minority and white students, as well as economically disadvantaged students and their more affluent peers, hasn’t budged. Closing the gap was the primary purpose of No Child Left Behind.
  • This was the first year that NAEP broke out achievement specifically for students of Asian descent, instead of including them in a wider category that also included Pacific Islanders.
  •  Nevada saw its reading scores improve despite two truly dreadful years of soaring unemployment, hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to public education and an ever-growing population of high-need students.

Nevada Superintendent Keith Rheault, who took part in the webinar, said “the improvements have been steady, not spectacular, but over the past eight years, they have added up to quite a bit.” (Click here for the Las Vegas Sun’s story.) Rheault also noted that Nevada remains the bottom quarter of states for overall NAEP scores, even as its in the top quarter of states that are showing gains.

There was another interesting moment, when one of the webinar attendees asked what correlations might be drawn  from the nation’s math scores improving even as reading scores stagnate. Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, was blunt.

“We spend a lot of time making sure the measurement is valid,” Buckley said. “We are not the people to turn to for the `why.’”

Buckley noted that “folks are quick to use these scores to evaluate their favorite policies and programs … but it’s very complicated. We’re happy that NAEP is there to start these conversations, but it’s definitely not the definitive answer.”

I appreciated Buckley’s willingness to acknowledge the limitations of statistical data, but it also points to the difficulty of actually using the NAEP results to actually improve student performance. As for Nevada, Rheault said the state’s reading scores began turning around after receiving a hefty federal grant to implement intensive interventions. When it comes to education reform, cause-and-effect relationships aren’t always easy to establish.

David Driscoll, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP, called the flat-lined reading scores “deeply disappointing.”

Driscoll is correct. How many more points would students would have gained in math if their reading comprehension had been stronger?