NAEP Provides Acid Test for NCLB

Published January 1, 2004

The 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed modest gains in the mathematical prowess of fourth and eighth graders but little or no progress in their reading skills.

Last year’s test marked the first time all 50 states participated in NAEP, which began in 1969 as a voluntary gauge of American children’s mastery of reading, writing, math, U.S. history, geography, and other subjects.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, NAEP now becomes a mandatory audit of the results of each state’s annual testing of students in grades 3-8 in reading and mathematics. NCLB requires testing of those two subjects but allows each state to choose its own tests and set its own standards.

As Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom note in their new book, No Excuses, NCLB contains much that is good in prodding for results and giving parents a modicum of choice, but it suffers from a definitional “squishiness” in accountability.

With the new tests going on line, NAEP may show if states are inflating their scores to make their schools look better than they are. As one activist put it, NAEP could provide a “truth serum” for the states.

Between now and the 2013 deadline NCLB optimistically sets for all children to be “proficient” in reading and math, state policymakers will have to decide if proficiency means the exacting standard embodied in NAEP or something softer–perhaps more on the order of NAEP’s “basic” redefined by states as “proficient.”

Basic vs. Proficient

Scored on a 500-point scale, NAEP ranks student performance at basic, proficient, or advanced levels.

“Proficient” is the desired standard of grade-level achievement. For instance, students who read proficiently on the NAEP “have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.”

“Basic” means only partial mastery, below grade level.

But a comment by an official of the nation’s second-largest teacher union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), may foreshadow a coming effort to equate basic with proficient.

“It’s important for people to understand,” said the AFT’s Bella Rosenberg, “that ‘basic’ is a pretty high standard–and ‘proficient’ is a very high standard.”

An analysis by Rosalind Rossi, education reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, showed significantly fewer Illinois students scored as proficient on the first NAEP required of all states than scored at that level on Illinois’ homegrown test. For instance, while just 29 percent of Illinois eighth-graders scored proficient on NAEP math, 53 percent met the proficient mark on Illinois’ own math test.

Illinois was by no means unique. The pattern of state-test scores being markedly higher than NAEP scores held true in at least two-thirds of the states.

NAEP Trends

Looking at near-term NAEP trends alone, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige was uncharacteristically ebullient about the math scores, calling them “stellar.”

On NAEP’s 500-point scale, fourth-graders scored an average of 234, marking a 10-point gain since the math test was last given in 2000. There was also a significant increase in the proportion of fourth-graders scoring at or above proficient in math–up from 22 percent in 2000 to 31 percent in 2003.

The improvement is encouraging, but the fact remains more than two-thirds of students still are scoring below the level–proficient–that is deemed the desired benchmark. It’s true the NAEP levels have not yet been proven to be valid, but most education reformers and apologists alike consider them the best nationwide gauge of student knowledge currently available.

Members of the National Assessment Governing Board, NAEP’s nonpartisan overseer, also drew encouragement from big rises in minority youngsters at least reaching the basic level in math over the past three years.

Black fourth-graders attaining basic in math rose from 36 percent to 54 percent, while Hispanic children reaching basic in fourth-grade NAEP climbed from 42 percent to 62 percent. Those gains bolstered confidence about eventually closing the achievement gap for racial/ethnic minorities, one of NCLB’s prime objectives.

However, possible controversy looms over whether NAEP assesses the kind of analytical math advocated by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics since the NCTM’s release of standards in 1989 that are derided by critics as “fuzzy” or “rainforest” math. The concern is that NAEP may be too heavily influenced by the NCTM standards, which de-emphasized drill, memorization, and computation in favor of conceptual understanding and students even constructing their own knowledge. Thus, students may still be short on computational skill even though the NAEP math scores are rising.

Scores Jump in Florida

Meanwhile, the latest NAEP reading scores are not bragging material. Because an NAEP reading test had been given just last year, National Center for Education Statistics administrators had said few gains should be expected. And indeed, only one of the 50 states showed a one-year improvement in fourth-grade reading scores: Florida, where scores jumped 4 points to 218.

Under Governor Jeb Bush’s A+ program, parents in failing schools have the right to transfer their children to better-performing private or public schools. In addition, corporate tax credits provide thousands more children with privately funded scholarships to seek improved educational opportunities.

Nationally, fourth-graders scored an average 218 on the NAEP reading test, a statistically insignificant 1-point decline from the 2002 test. More significantly, when the NAEP’s “main assessment” in reading first was given in 1992, the average score was 217; thus the average has barely budged in more than a decade.

In the wake of this dismal result, officials offered such explanations as the rise in limited-English-proficient students and the drag on reading development exerted by cultural influences outside of school, including homes. A prime intent of NCLB is to dispense with the excuses and teach all children English.

Perhaps the most dismal news came from the nation’s capital, where only 11 percent of DC fourth-graders and 10 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient in reading. Nine in 10 Washington DC public school students are not able to read well enough to handle grade-level material.

Despite this huge systemic failure, opposition in the U.S. Senate continued to stall a bipartisan plan backed by President George W. Bush, DC Mayor Anthony Williams, and others to offer private school vouchers to students in some of the worst DC public schools and to prod deficient public schools to improve.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The full set of reading and math results is available on the NAEP Web site at http:///