Student Achievement

January 22, 1997 12 min read

OBJECTIVE: All students achieving at high levels and engaged in challenging academic work.

The bottom line for any education system is whether its students are achieving at high levels.

Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress are cause for genuine concern. In every participating state, a majority of 4th and 8th graders perform at the “basic” level or below in reading and mathematics. This means that they have only partially mastered the knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at their grade levels. Fourth graders performing at the basic level, for example, should show some understanding of fractions and decimals and be able to make simple inferences based on what they read.

There is no state in which at least half the students perform at the “proficient” level or above. Proficient means that they have demonstrated competence over challenging subject matter and are well-prepared for the next level of schooling. In mathematics, for example, 8th graders at the proficient level should be able to make inferences from data and graphs; apply properties of informal geometry; and use addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and estimation to solve practical problems.

Every state still has a large percentage of students who perform at a “below basic” level. These student have not mastered even the fundamental skills and knowledge needed to do grade-level work.

In looking at achievement, we have focused only on state scores on NAEP tests for a reason: The assessment is the only ongoing source of information we have that lets us know how students are performing in a variety of subjects both at the national level and by state. The congressionally mandated study has been in place since 1969. Results on student performance at the state level have been available since 1990.

We did not give states a letter grade on their NAEP results. If we had, all would have failed. Instead, we have allowed the percent of students scoring at the “proficient” level to speak for itself. In the state report cards, we list the 1994 reading scores for 4th graders (the only grade for which state-level results were available that year) and the 1992 math scores for 8th graders (the highest grade at which state results were available that year).

Some states chose not to participate in AEP state-level tests in 1992 and 1994. For these states, you will see only the symbol N/A. Neither they nor we know how their students perform compared with those in other states or nationwide.

States also do extensive testing of their own, using a variety of assessments that vary in quality. And many states have reported student progress on their state-level tests. We did not include the results from state testing programs here because there is no way to compare the results across states. In some instances, what a state deems to be “proficient” performance is far below the target levels set by NAEP.

Moreover, some of the tests used are norm-referenced multiple-choice tests that are not appropriate to measure student achievement in a standards-driven system. Nonetheless, the media often publish these test scores as “report cards” on the quality of the public schools.

At best, these test scores can tell us whether students in one state are doing better or worse than the average for another group of students who answered the same set of questions.

The tests cannot tell us whether students have mastered a challenging body of knowledge and skills because norm-referenced tests only compare students to each other and not to an unwavering standard of performance. Our own survey found that 89% of superintendents and principal and 84% of teachers agree that multiple-choice standardized tests do not adequately measure how much children have learned in school.

Student scores on the SAT also are invoked to compare the quality of education in one state with that of another. But this too is misleading. The SAT I: Reasoning Test was designed to predict whether students are likely to succeed in the first year in college. Only a portion of a state’s students take the exam and that percentage varies widely from one state to another. Some states have higher average scores because they have relatively few students taking the test. This says nothing about the quality of their education systems.

In addition, the SAT does not reflect whether young people have mastered the knowledge and skills that a state has identified as important. What teachers teach and what the SAT tests may be two different things.

One predictor of student achievement is whether students take a college-preparatory sequence in high school. According to data from the National Education Longitudinal Study, students who take a core academic sequence perform better than those who do not, and they are more likely to earn a postsecondary degree.

We attempted to look at students’ course-taking by state, how many dropped out of school, and how many enrolled in college. At the national level, we know that high school students are taking more rigorous courses now than they did in 1983, an important sign that expectations are going up. But what we discovered is that data about student course-taking at the state level are dismal. Many states cannot provide the most basic information on what proportion of their young people are taking rigorous math, science, English, and social studies courses.

States also do shoddy recordkeeping when it comes to dropout and graduation rates. The definitions are not even comparable across states. We cannot tell, for example, what percent of 16- to 19-yearolds in a state have earned a high school diploma vs. a General Educational Development credential. Yet we know that those who hold a GED certificate do not fare as well economically.

This kind of information is crucial if we hope to raise student achievement.

Because the data on academic participation rates are so inadequate, we were unable to grade the states on this information. They all get an “incomplete.” It would seem penny-wise and pound-foolish for state legislatures to invest so much money in school reform over the past 15 years and so little money in collecting the data that would tell them whether their laws and programs are having the desired effect.

We know that it is controversial to compare states based on test scores because students who come from families with higher incomes, fewer children, and higher education levels typically score higher on assessments. And the proportion of students who have these advantages varies greatly across states, school districts, and schools.

NAEP scores can be adjusted, based on such demographic characteristics, to make comparisons across states look fairer. But that does not change the underlying reality. Moreover, some states and schools do better than others in raising the achievement of all students. We can no longer use the excuse of a student’s background to justify low achievement.

Therefore, we have reported state scores without adjustment. In another section of this report, we give examples of states whose students perform much better than their peers with similar backgrounds elsewhere. (See page 10.)


NAEP Achievement. We did not give a letter grade for achievement. Instead, we have listed the percent of 4th graders in reading and of 4th and 8th graders in math who performed at various levels.

We ranked states based on the percentage of their 4th graders who achieved proficiency on the 1994 NAEP reading exam.

States that had the same percentage-North Dakota and Connecticut, for example-were then ranked according to the percentage of their 8th grader who achieved proficiency on the 1992 math exam. Finally, states that tied on both measures were ranked in alphabetical order.

One of the eight National Education Goals is that “all students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter.” The National Education Goals Panel has interpreted this to mean that 100% of students will score at the “proficient” or “advanced” level on NAEP by 2000.

1. Percent of 4th graders reading at the “proficient” or “advanced” level on the 1994 NAEP reading exam. The percent of students scoring at the proficient level or above appears in the state’s report card.

2. Percent of 8th graders scoring at the “proficient” or “advanced” level on the 1992 NAEP math exam. The percent of students scoring at the proficient level or above appears on the state’s report card. (The NAEP math scores are corrected scores released in November 1996.)

Additional NAEP Data. Other levels of achievement in the NAEP reading and math exams are listed for information only.

3. Percent of 4th graders who scored at the “basic” level on the 1994 NAEP reading assessment.

4. Percent of 4th graders who scored at the “below basic” level on the 1994 NAEP reading assessment. Students at this level are likely to have difficulty doing grade-level work.

5. Percent of 8th graders who scored at the “basic” level on the 1992 NAEP math assessment.

6. Percent of 8th graders who scored at the “below basic” level on the 1992 NAEP math assessment.

7. Percent of 4th graders who scored at the “proficient” or “advanced” level on the 1992 NAEP math assessment.

8. Percent of 4th graders who scored at the “basic” level on the 1992 NAEP math assessment.

9. Percent of 4th graders who scored at the “below basic” level on the 1992 NAEP math assessment.

Academic Participation, Staying in School, and Going to College. We have not graded states on this set of indicators because the data are so scanty. These data are presented for information only.

10. State-funded preschool programs for disadvantaged children. Various studies show that high-quality preschools promote cognitive, social, and emotional development in young children, with some effects persisting well into an individual’s adult years. “Years of Promise,” the report of the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s task force on learning in the primary grades, notes: “Many studies of the impact of high-quality preschool programs on disadvantaged children confirm that they significantly develop children’s social and coping skills, reduce referrals to special education and improve retention rates, and improve children’s learning during the early elementary grades, all of which are crucial factors in establishing a trajectory toward achievement.”

11. Percent of public high schools offering Advanced Placement courses. AP courses, which teach college-level material in high school, are one indicator of whether students have access to challenging intellectual content.

They are widely recognized for their quality and rigor. The National Education Longitudinal Study has found that even after controlling for family income, school characteristics, and a student’s 10th grade test scores, students who took AP classes learned more than students in “average” classes and much more than students in “remedial” classes. We recognize that it costs money to offer AP courses. This may be particularly problematic for states with large numbers of small, rural high schools. But states like Utah have made such courses much more accessible by making AP course-taking a priority.

12. Percent of 8th graders taking algebra. The College Board has identified Algebra 1 as a “gateway” course that helps determine whether students will progress to higher levels of mathematics and enroll in college. Its Equity 2000 project works with school districts to ensure that all students complete Algebra 1 by the end of 9th grade-still a distant goal for many school systems.

But studies suggest that students would benefit from taking algebra even sooner. One analysis of the 1992 NAEP mathematics assessment found that higher-achieving schools had students who took higher-level courses, including 8th or 9th grade algebra.

Another study, using longitudinal data from the federally funded “High School and Beyond” study started in the 1970s, found that students who take 8th grade algebra end up enrolling in more high school math courses and score higher on math tests by senior year.

The Third International Mathematics and Science Study found the topics being taught in U.S. math classes in grade 8 were at a 7th grade level in comparison with other countries. Japanese textbooks, for example, devoted more space to algebra than did the books studied by the majority of U.S. 8th graders.

We should note that fully half of the 8th graders who took the 1992 NAEP math exam were enrolled in “general” or “8th grade math,” which is essentially arithmetic. The data here are not available for states that did not participate in the 1992 NAEP math assessment.

13. Percent of students taking upper-level math courses. This is the percent of a state’s students in grades 9-12 taking either geometry, Algebra 2, trigonometry and calculus, or calculus in 1994. For states that offer an integrated math curriculum for high schools, such as California, it would include integrated math at level 2 or above.

Taking at least two years of high school math is a strong predictor of whether students succeed in college and whether minority students earn a degree. Studies show that students in upper-level courses learn more, even after controlling for a student’s prior level of achievement and social background. The data here are not available for all state.

14. Percent of students taking upper-level science courses. This is the percent of a state’s students in grades 9-12 taking chemistry, physics, or advanced or second-year science courses in 1994.

In the 1980s, many states required students to earn two or three science credits to graduate from high school. The typical student now takes an introductory science course and first-year biology. Nationally, more than 95% of high school students take biology. Several states also have a substantial percent of students taking a coordinated or integrated science curriculum that includes content from biology, chemistry, physics, and earth/space science.

The data here are not available for all states.

15. Percent of 16- to 19-year-olds who are not in school and who have not graduated. This is an approximate measure of the percent of 16- to 19-yearold dropouts within a state. We do not know how many of the student considered graduates have a high school diploma and how many have earned GED credentials.

16. Percent of a state’s 1994 high school graduates who were enrolled in two-year or four-year colleges in October 1994. Most college students who enroll in postsecondary education do so immediately after high school. And students who enroll in college immediately are more likely to earn a degree than those who do not.

Having a college degree is increasingly important. People with a baccalaureate earn more and are less likely to be unemployed than those with only a high school diploma.

Individuals with an associate’s degree fall somewhere in between. In 1994, the proportion of high school graduates going directly to college nationwide was 62%. But studies indicate that at least 75% of young people want and expect to earn a four-year college degree.