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Published in Print: October 26, 2005, as NAEP Gains Are Elusive in Key Areas

NAEP Gains Are Elusive in Key Areas

Friends and Foes Question NCLB Law’s Effectiveness

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The Bush administration said last week that newly released 2005 results from “the nation’s report card” confirm that the No Child Left Behind Act is on track. But many in the education community questioned that conclusion, given that reading achievement remained relatively flat and that progress in math has slowed over the past two years.

While some narrowing of the achievement gaps between generally higher-scoring white students and their generally lower-scoring African-American and Hispanic peers has occurred, even supporters of the law say those gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are not nearly enough.

For More Info
Review the 2005 National and State Report Cards in Reading and Math for grades 4 and 8, posted by the National Center for Education Statistics.

“To make a claim that these NAEP results demonstrate that NCLB is working is just basically out of line, if you’re really concerned about evidence-based policy,” said James W. Kohlmoos, the president of the National Education Knowledge Industry Association, a trade group based in Washington.

“I think it raises more questions than answers,” Martin Orland, the director of the Center for Education at the National Research Council, said of the test results. “I think to declare either victory or defeat from this is making too much of a datum.”

The federal legislation, which President Bush signed into law in January 2002, is designed to drive broad gains in student achievement, with particular emphasis on reading and mathematics. The congressionally mandated NAEP tests, given periodically to a representative sample of students nationally and in each of the 50 states, provide what experts consider the most reliable national picture of student achievement in core subjects.

In July, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings pointed to gains on what is called the long-term-trend NAEP as “proof that No Child Left Behind is working.” That exam, given to a much smaller sample of youngsters nationwide than took the latest tests, showed a 9-point gain in math scores and a 7-point gain in reading scores for 9-year-olds on a 500-point scale, as well as a 5-point gain in math scores for 13-year-olds, between 1999 and 2004.

The 2005 results, released at a press conference here Oct. 19, are based on a much larger sample of 660,000 students nationwide and allow a more direct comparison of changes from 2003 to 2005, a period since the law was enacted. In a phone interview with reporters after the news conference, Secretary Spellings said the new data “confirm that we are on the right track with No Child Left Behind.”

But while the data show a similar upward trend since 2000 in both math and reading in grade 4 and in math in grade 8, they also show that progress has slowed in the past two years, when the NCLB law might have been starting to have an impact.

Indeed, gains for the nation’s lowest-performing students—those in the bottom quartile—were far steeper from 2000 to 2003 than afterward.

“This is not necessarily a great story,” said Mr. Kohlmoos, cautioning that “NAEP is not set up to allow you to make inferences about causation.”

Mixed Picture

A closer examination of the data shows mixed results.

State Performance

States showed more progress in math than in reading from 2003 to 2005.


Significant increase 4th grade
Significant increase 8th grade
Significant increase both grades
No significant increase


Significant increase 4th grade
Significant decrease 8th grade
Significant decrease both grades
No significant increase

Reading achievement rose just a point for 4th graders, to a national average of 219 on a 500-point scale, in the past two years, and dropped a point for 8th graders, to 262.

“I think it really shows how, if you only focus your reform attention in reading on the lower grade levels, that will not necessarily translate into higher achievement across the board,” said Timothy Shanahan, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the president-elect of the International Reading Association. “I wish I could just blame the policymakers. There are a lot of people in the field who pushed very hard for improvements in the primary grades with the assumption that would just fix it.”

In fact, reading scores for both grades have remained largely the same since data were first available in 1992. Some 64 percent of 4th graders and 73 percent of 8th graders now score at or above the “basic” level in reading, while 31 percent in both grades score at or above “proficient.”

Math scores, which have climbed dramatically since 1990, when the current version of the test was first given, rose again, but more modestly this time. Fourth graders posted a 3-point gain since 2003, reaching a national average of 238, while the average score for 8th graders rose 1 point, to 279.

Some 36 percent of 4th graders and 30 percent of 8th graders were deemed proficient on the math test. Larger proportions than in the past also demonstrated at least basic skills: 80 percent of 4th graders and 69 percent of 8th graders.

Gap Closing

The Bush administration highlighted, as especially heartening, the progress made by minority students in 4th grade.

“This is an encouraging report,” President Bush said, after meeting with Secretary Spellings at the White House, “because it shows there’s an achievement gap in America that is closing, that minority students, particularly in 4th grade math and 4th grade reading, are beginning to catch up with their Anglo counterparts.”

African-American 4th graders gained 2 points in reading and 4 points in math between 2003 and 2005, while Hispanic 4th graders gained 3 points in reading and 4 points in math.

“I’m very pleased that we’re making steady progress, which is driven by increased progress by Hispanic and African-American students, which is the whole point of No Child Left Behind,” said Ms. Spellings during the Oct. 19 telephone briefing.

Just how much to celebrate a few points’ boost is open to debate, however. Although the differences in scores between black and Hispanic students and their white peers narrowed by 1 or 2 points depending on the grade and subject, the minority students are still more than 20 points behind.

“The absence of really bad news isn’t the same as good news, and if you’re concerned about education and closing achievement gaps, there’s simply not enough good news in these national results,” said Ross Wiener, the policy director of the Education Trust. The Washington-based research and advocacy group has been a strong supporter of the federal law, which seeks to hold schools accountable for raising student achievement.

Though the NAEP 2005 math results are “an affirmation that much of what we are doing is working,” said Cathy L. Seeley, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, “the results for minority students and children in poverty remain unacceptably low.”

What’s Reasonable?

Based on the current rate of improvement on NAEP, the No Child Left Behind law’s goal that all children will be proficient on state tests in reading and math by 2013-14 appears unlikely to be met, even assuming that what counts for “proficient” in many states is closer to NAEP’s basic achievement level. The proportion of students at or above basic inched up only a few percentage points, at most, between the 2003 and 2005 national assessments.

“I think it does show us that we’re going to need to accelerate our progress at all grade levels and with all kids if we’re to meet those goals,” Ms. Spellings said. “We actually won’t do it, if we don’t think we can do it.”

An analysis issued last week by the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation questioned some of the gains states have reported on their own tests in the past two years, noting that in more than 15 states, those gains were not confirmed by improvements in the percent of students scoring at even the basic level on NAEP between 2003 and 2005.

But a separate report by Standard & Poor’s, a division of the New York City-based McGraw-Hill Cos., pointed to factors that could contribute to different results on the national and state tests. It noted that NAEP has no consequences for students, such as deciding whether they’ll be promoted to the next grade; that it is given only to a sample of youngsters; and that it is not explicitly aligned with state academic-content standards.

Because the NCLB measure was signed into law a little less than four years ago, most observers said, it’s probably too early to conclude anything about its real effect on student achievement.

Secretary Spellings pointed out that the federal law has yet to be fully implemented. For example, the requirement that states test students in reading and math annually in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school takes effect this school year. And the law’s $1 billion-a-year Reading First investments in the primary grades will take time to affect results in the upper grades.

The University of Illinois’ Mr. Shanahan agreed that the Reading First program, which provides money to enhance research-based instruction in the subject, hits a relatively small proportion of schools, primarily those that are low-income and low-achieving. “Until we actually get some data out of those schools, I think you’d have to say that the jury is still out on Reading First,” he said.

“The broader question of NCLB is a little different because that is clearly something that’s supposed to be hitting everybody,” he added. “Clearly, we should start to see some impact of that; the issue is how quickly should you see it?

“If you just look at the overall scores, particularly at the 4th grade level, there’s absolutely no doubt that the scores are up a bit, but it’s a small bit.”

Darvin M. Winick, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, said “The expectation for rapid change in a large, complex organization such as public education probably should be moderate. Anticipating in two-year intervals a lot of change is probably unrealistic.”

State Differences

State-level results on the 2005 NAEP were also mixed.

In all, seven states attained statistically significant increases in reading among 4th graders, while seven saw their scores drop among 8th graders.

On the math test, more than 30 states showed some improvement on the 4th grade test, while seven did so for 8th graders.

For the first time, the NAEP reports also included information on the changing student racial and ethnic composition of states between 1992 and 2005.

“As our country becomes increasingly diverse, so, too, do student populations, which vary both between states and over time,” said John H. Stevens, the chairman of the governing board’s reporting and dissemination committee. “As a result, achievement data and trends should be interpreted as a reflection of changing demographics as well as school effectiveness.”

As an example, he noted that over the past 15 years, the size of the Hispanic student population has more than doubled nationally.

“It’s notable that as our student population has become increasingly diverse, the scores have continued to rise,” Secretary Spellings said.

Particularly when talking about relatively modest changes over a relatively short span, the issue of demographics and population changes “is a legitimate point,” said Mr. Orland of the NRC.

But Jack Jennings, the president of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, a research group that has tracked implementation of the No Child Left Behind law, said that based on the 2005 NAEP results, “there does not seem to be a great leap forward.”

“The central issue is still, is this a proper approach to raise student achievement and to narrow the achievement gap?” he said of the law. “I don’t see to date the evidence that it is, at least not in test results.”

Vol. 25, Issue 09, Pages 1,22-23

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