NAEP Finds Basic Skills Up, Higher-Order Skills Lacking

By William Snider — February 22, 1989 3 min read

Washington--The national movement to improve schooling has produced measurable gains in students’ mastery of basic skills but has not prepared them to apply those skills to solving more complex problems, a new federally financed report concludes.

The report, released at a press conference here last week, contains no new data on student achievement. Rather, it is a compilation of subject-specific reports issued over the past 20 years by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Assessment officials said the report was naep’s first comprehensive look at learning across subject areas.

“The education system in this country needs to extend its focus from the teaching and learning of skills and content to include an emphasis on the purposeful use of skills and knowledge,” says the report, “Crossroads in American Education.”

That broader focus, it adds, may require “more fundamental changes in curriculum and instruction.”

Most of the education leaders attending the briefing characterized the report’s data as a combination of “good and bad news.”

Americans should “consider this report from the standpoint of shareholders in the largest endeavor in the nation,” said Archie E. Lapointe, naep’s executive director.

“If one views this report as a balance sheet on 20 years of American education,” he said, “our assets clearly include strengthening students’ basic skills and improving minority student performance.”

“On the liabilities side of the ledger,” he continued, “we find deficits in higher-order thinking skills,8which means that large proportions of American students do not appear to be adequately prepared for college work, career mobility, and thoughtful citizenship.”

Effects of Home Factors

Naep is a Congressionally mandated project that tests student achievement in reading, mathematics, science, and other subjects. It is administered by the Educational Testing Service under a contract with the Education Department.

The new synthesis of findings from the assessment goes beyond a simple portrait of trends in student achievement to explore factors related to student success. The report cautions, however, that the data do not permit addressing questions of cause and effect.

Levels of proficiency in all subjects are clearly and consistently related to the amount of homework students do and to the number and level of courses they take, the report says.

In addition, it says, encouragement and resources that students receive at home are closely related to their academic success.

Roger B. Porter, assistant to President Bush for economic and domestic policy, cited the findings on parental involvement to promote a leading item on the President’s education agenda.

“Hands-on parents, which is what we need, need choices” about which schools their children attend, he told the press.

Mr. Porter also said naep’s recent findings of stagnation in science and mathemetics scores were “particularly disturbing.” In an era of rapid technological advances, he said, “if we’re not moving forward, we’re moving backwards.”

The report also notes that traditional teaching methods may have to be “remodeled” if more students are to acquire higher-order skills.

‘Participatory’ Teaching

“Students who report participatory and varied instructional practices in science and literature classes,” it says, “tend to have higher proficiency levels than their peers in less exploratory classrooms.”

It advocates greater use of such teaching methods as discussion teams, cooperative work groups, individual learning logs, and computer networking.

“Using these new approaches,” the report adds, “will require teachers to move away from traditional authoritarian roles and, at the same time, require students to give up being passive recipients of learning.”

Copies of the report can be purchased for $9 each from the Nation’s Report Card, P.O. Box 6710, Princeton, N.J. 08541-6710.

A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 1989 edition of Education Week as NAEP Finds Basic Skills Up, Higher-Order Skills Lacking