8th Graders in 18 of 37 States Show Math Gains, NAEP Reports

By Robert Rothman — April 14, 1993 9 min read
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Eighteen of the 37 states that participated in the first two state-level assessments of student achievement showed significant gains in 8th graders’ mathematics performance between 1990 and 1992, and no state declined significantly over that period, a report on the National Assessment of Educational Progress has found.

The report by the National Center for Education Statistics, released here last week, was the first to show state-level trends in student achievement over time. It was based on tests administered in 1992 to a national sample of 26,000 4th, 8th, and 12th graders, and to samples of public school students in the 4th and 8th grades in 44 states and territories.

Eighth graders in 37 states and territories took part in the first-ever state-level math assessment in 1990.

But the new report found that, despite the improvements, state performance continues to vary widely. In addition, the gains did little to close the gaps between high and low achievers, and overall achievement remains low.

Depending on the state, as many as 75 percent of 4th graders, the study found, failed to attain at least the “basic’’ level of achievement, which indicates at least “partial mastery’’ of fundamental knowledge and skills.

“While we’re moving in the right direction, and we’re pleased about that,’' Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said in unveiling the report at a press conference here, “unfortunately today’s news is not all good.’'

“We see that students across the board are not meeting the high standards we have set,’' he said.

But Mr. Riley suggested that the gains that have occurred provide “early evidence’’ that standards and assessments can help boost student achievement. He noted that the standards for mathematics instruction developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics are being used, or being considered for use, in 40 states. (See related story, page 10.)

But Iris M. Carl, the past president of the N.C.T.M., cautioned that the effects of the use of that group’s standards have not yet shown up in the NAEP results.

“If you look at the states at the top, they are relatively small states, states that have been successful in the past,’' she said. “There is not sufficient evidence that shows that other states are moving into that pool.’'

‘Concern’ Over Standards

The report issued last week is the second to present results from the 1992 NAEP math assessment. In January, the Education Department released preliminary data showing that, nationwide, student performance in math improved significantly from 1990 to 1992. (See Education Week, Jan. 20, 1993.)

NAEP is a Congressionally mandated project that tests samples of students in reading, writing, math, science, and other subjects. It is operated by the Educational Testing Service under contract to the N.C.E.S.

The new study is the first NAEP report to present results primarily against the standards set by the National Assessment Governing Board. Using the standards, the report indicates the proportion of students who performed at the “basic,’' “proficient,’' and “advanced’’ levels of achievement.

But at the press conference, Ms. Carl referred to technical questions that have been raised about the standards, and she urged that they be used with caution, if at all. Ms. Carl noted, for example, that the test questions used in the report to demonstrate the type of problems students at each standard can answer may not in fact represent different levels of achievement.

“There is serious concern for the validity of the data,’' she said.

Emerson J. Elliott, the commissioner of education statistics, said the N.C.E.S. is studying the inferences that can be drawn from NAEP results. A report on the issue is expected to be released this summer.

Variations Among States

The new study found that the state-level trends in math performance generally mirrored those for the national level, although performance varied widely among the states.

In 1992, the highest-performing states in the 4th-grade assessment were Maine, Iowa, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Minnesota, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Nebraska. On the 8th-grade assessment, the highest-performing states were Iowa, North Dakota, Minnesota, Maine, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Nebraska.

In both grades, the lowest performers were Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, the District of Columbia, and Guam. California was also among the lowest performers at the 4th-grade level, and the Virgin Islands was among the lowest performers in the 8th grade.

The difference between the highest and lowest performers was wide, according to Mr. Elliott. The gap in average proficiency between the two groups was 37 points on a 500-point scale, he noted, or about three-fourths of the difference between 4th graders and 8th graders nationally.

The report also found that more than half the 4th graders in Alabama, Arkansas, California, the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Guam failed to attain at least the basic level. By contrast, more than a fourth of the 4th graders in Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, and New Hampshire reached the proficient level or above, which indicates that they have demonstrated at least “solid academic performance.’'

Very few 4th graders attained the advanced level, which shows “superior performance.’'

The proportion of 8th graders at the proficient level or above ranged from a low of 1 percent in the Virgin Islands to a high of 37 percent in Iowa. Those 8th graders performing at or above the advanced level ranged from none in Mississippi and the Virgin Islands to 6 percent in Minnesota.

Minnesota was also the only state to show improvement at all three levels of achievement between 1990 and 1992. Five states--Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Texas--showed gains in the number of students reaching the basic and proficient levels.

The 18 states that improved their overall performance between 1990 and 1992 were scattered throughout the country, but most appear to be concentrated in the Southwest and the Rocky Mountain states.

Demonstrating Understanding

Looking at the results through NAEP’s traditional reporting method, which is contained in an appendix to the report, the study found similar variations among states.

At grade 8, for example, more than a fourth of the students in Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin showed an understanding of fractions, decimals, and percents, as well as a beginning understanding of geometry, statistics, and algebra. By contrast, fewer than 10 percent of the 8th graders in Alabama, Arkansas, the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Mississippi, West Virginia, Guam, and the Virgin Islands demonstrated such understanding.

Over all, the study found, most 4th graders could solve simple addition and subtraction problems using whole numbers, and most 8th graders could multiply and divide and perform simple measurement.

But only half of 12th graders could solve problems using fractions, decimals, and percents, and only 6 percent of the high school seniors could solve more complex problems involving algebra and functions.

“To reach the national education goals, we will all have to do considerably more,’' Secretary Riley said.

Math Content Areas

The study also found that, nationally, student performance improved on most math content areas. But states’ performance on different content areas varied substantially.

The assessment tested students in five areas of math: numbers and operations; measurement; geometry; data analysis, statistics, and probability; and algebra and functions. The assessment also contained a special section to gauge students’ ability at estimation.

Nationally, 4th graders improved between 1990 and 1992 in all areas tested (they were not tested in data analysis, statistics, and probability), while 8th and 12th graders increased their proficiency in all areas except estimation.

In algebra and functions, the improvements were greater in the top half of the performance distribution in grades 4 and 8, while in grade 12 the lower performers showed greater gains.

Secretary Riley said this finding suggests that more high school students are taking algebra.

“A low percentage of students are taking algebra at 8th grade,’' he said, “but when they took algebra later on, the students seem to have done better.’'

Among the states, the gains in different content areas were more mixed, however. At grade 8, three states--Hawaii, North Carolina, and Rhode Island--showed increased performance in all five content areas, and Minnesota improved in all but numbers and operations.

States that performed at the top level in each content area tended to be those that performed well over all, the study found. An exception was in geometry, however, where 4th graders in Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, Nebraska, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Jersey performed as well as or better than their peers from all other participating states.

Gender Gap Narrows

In examining the performance of various demographic groups, the study found that, as with the national results, white and Asian-American students tended to outperform their black and Hispanic peers.

Between 13 percent and 33 percent of the white 4th graders performed at or above the proficient level, it found, compared with 5 percent or fewer of black students and 15 percent or fewer of Hispanic 4th graders.

In a number of states, however, there were no significant differences between blacks’ and Hispanics’ performance. Nationally, Hispanics’ average proficiency was eight or nine points higher than that of blacks’.

In addition, while white 8th graders’ performance improved in 13 states between 1990 and 1992, blacks’ performance during that period improved in only two states--Rhode Island and Texas. Hispanics gained in three states--Colorado, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

Similarly, the study also found that students who attended the one-third of schools with the highest average proficiency improved their performance in all three grades between 1990 and 1992, while those attending the lowest-performing schools improved their performance only at grade 12. The study found that, in most states, black and Hispanic students were underrepresented in the top-performing schools.

Consistent with the national findings, which showed no significant gender difference in math performance at the 4th and 8th grades, the study also found that, in 1992, the average performance for boys and girls was the same in most states.

And, it found, while male 8th graders demonstrated gains in eight states between 1990 and 1992, female students improved in 16 states and territories over that period.

But Ms. Carl of the math teachers’ council pointed out that boys continue to outperform girls at the 12th grade.

“The gender gaps have narrowed, but separate opportunities to learn are growing,’' she said.

Copies of the report, “NAEP 1992: Mathematics Report Card for the Nation and the States,’' are available for $22 each by writing: New Orders, Superintendent of Documents, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15250-7954. The stock number is 065-000-00559-0. Copies of an executive summary of the report (stock number 065-000-00558-1) are available for $2.25 each from the same address.

Individual state reports are available through state departments of education. For more information, call (800) 424-1616.

A version of this article appeared in the April 14, 1993 edition of Education Week as 8th Graders in 18 of 37 States Show Math Gains, NAEP Reports


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