2007 NAEP Scores Show Spending Increases Haven’t Produced Results

Published December 1, 2007

The 2007 edition of “The Nation’s Report Card” wasn’t straight A or straight F when it was released in late September. However, had it had been an individual student’s take-home report, conscientious parents would have limited the kid’s video game access and increased family reading time.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report on fourth- and eighth-graders’ math and reading skills yielded mixed results that are subject to widely differing interpretation. As has been true in the recent past, this year’s results were better in elementary school than in middle and high school, and math scores were higher than reading.

“We’re making slow and steady progress in reading, and we’re doing much better in math,” was the positive spin Mark Schneider, head of the U.S. Department of Education’s research arm, put on it.

In her official statement, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said the latest scores proved wrong those “naysayers” who contend the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is not working. “Math scores for fourth- and eighth-graders and the reading scores for fourth-graders are at historic highs and the biggest gains were made by African American and Hispanic students,” she said.

Minor Changes

Begun in 1969, NAEP regularly tests a representative sampling of U.S. schoolchildren to determine what they know and can do academically. Education analysts now watch this Report Card closely for signs NCLB, which requires states annually to test all pupils in grades 3-8, is having an impact after its first five years.

Average fourth-grade math scores rose from 238 in 2005 to 240 in 2007, while eighth-grade scores went from 279 to 281 over the same period. NAEP scoring is on a 0-500 scale.

Larger math gains came in the 1990s, however, before the advent of NCLB. Since 1990, fourth-grade math scores have risen 26 points, and eighth-grade math scores 18 points.

With regard to NCLB’s objective of closing the achievement gap between minority and white kids, the U.S. Department of Education found its strongest evidence of gradual gap-narrowing in fourth-grade math. Gains since 2003 were largest for black (six points) and Hispanic (five points) students.

Different Story

Then there is reading, where evidence of improvement is scant. While fourth-grade reading scores went from 219 in 2005 to 221 in 2007, the long-term trend is flat. In 1992, the fourth-grade reading score stood at 217.

Progress for eighth-grade reading has been even slower–up just one point from 2005. The 2007 average score of 263 is one point down from the 1998 NAEP. Since 1992, eighth-grade reading scores have gone up only three points, despite heavy federal and state spending on reading programs.

In the September 27 issue of the Thomas Fordham Foundation’s online newsletter, The Education Gadfly, Michael Petrilli, the group’s vice president for programs, suggested the NAEP results merit careful scholarly analysis,. He wondered why there are small gains in fourth-grade reading but none in eighth grade.

Lack of Knowledge

“Since 1998, average reading scores for fourth-graders are up six points (with four of those points coming during the pre-NCLB years), but flat in eighth grade,” Petrilli wrote. “Are ‘scientifically based reading’ efforts paying off in the early grades? If so, will we eventually see greater gains at the eighth-grade level?

“Or is the middle-school slump a signal that students are not building the vocabularies they need in order to comprehend effectively–because schools aren’t offering enough subject matter content in the form of history, literature, science, and the arts, right from the start? If early reading skills are honed on meaningless ‘readers’ and the kids never encounter George Washington or Stuart Little, they won’t have the background knowledge to understand middle-school courses.”

Petrilli told School Reform News part of the answer might lie in a recent Fordham Institute study, “The Proficiency Illusion.”

“We discovered that most states are setting the bar higher–i.e., making their tests harder to pass–in math than in reading,” Petrilli explained. “Thus, schools and school districts get test score results back indicating that their students are doing fine in reading but quite poorly in math–just because of the relative difficulty level of the test.

“This might be pushing schools and school systems to redouble their efforts in math, and to take it easy in reading,” Petrilli concluded. “And that, perhaps, is causing the trends we see in NAEP. Bottom line: If we want to improve performance in reading, we might raise the bar on state reading tests.”

Missing the Point

Andrew J. Coulson, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom, believes the focus on gains, large or small, in the fourth and eighth grades misses the point.

“The real story,” Coulson said, “is that none of these improvements has been persisting through to the end of high school. What families and business leaders care about is how well students are prepared for life and work at the end of high school.”

Coulson pointed out NAEP long-term test results “show that gains in the early grades evaporate by the end of high school. Since 1990, the scores of 17-year-olds have stagnated in math and fallen in reading.

“In fact, their scores have stagnated or fallen in reading, math, and science since the NAEP tests were first administered in the late ’60s and early ’70s,” Coulson said. “That is despite the fact that we have more than doubled real per-pupil spending since 1970, to the current national average of more than $11,000 per pupil.”

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.

For more information …

“Report on Mathematics and Reading Achievement Now Available,” The Nation’s Report Card: http://nationsreportcard.gov/

“Five Questions for NAEP,” by Michael Petrilli, The Education Gadfly, September 27, 2007: http://edexcellence.net/institute/gadfly/issue.cfm?id=309&edition=#7

“The Proficiency Illusion,” by John Cronin, Michael Dahlin, Deborah Adkins, and G. Gage Kingsbury, Thomas Fordham Institute, October 4, 2007: http://edexcellence.net/foundation/publication/publication.cfm?id=376