RAND Report Tracks State NAEP Gains

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The schooling improvements that states undertook in the 1980s and early 1990s are translating to higher test scores, particularly for students in poor communities, according to a national study released last week.

For More Information

The full text of the study, "Improving Student Achievement: What NAEP State Test Scores Tell Us," is available online.

The state-by-state analysis by the RAND Corp. also shows that some states and strategies are better than others in raising scores. Smaller class sizes, better resources for teachers, and preschool programs are linked to higher achievement, the report says, while the academic payoff from having higher-paid, more experienced, or more educated teachers appears less certain.

Texas, North Carolina, and Michigan are spotlighted by the study for producing higher-than-average annual gains in their students' math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

David W. Grissmer

"The main message of this report is that public education is reformable," said David W. Grissmer, the lead researcher for the report from RAND, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank.

"Five years ago, I think there was genuine uncertainty across the nation [about] whether public schools could be improved," Mr. Grissmer said. "We now know that spending money, if it's well targeted, can increase achievement scores."

Political Implications

The study also provides grist for the debates over education that are taking place in the national presidential campaign. The prospective nominees of both major parties highlighted the findings on their Internet sites last week.

"I am proud of the results we have achieved in education in Texas," Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the presumptive Republican nominee, said in his statement. Compared with students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds in other states, Texas students rank near the top on national math tests in the RAND analysis.

But, as the researchers point out, most of the policy changes credited with Texas' achievement gains came about long before Mr. Bush became governor in 1995.

Vice President Al Gore, the presumptive Democratic nominee, also cited the report on his Web site for its support of smaller classes and expanded access to preschools—two remedies that he advocates.

The RAND team analyzed scores from seven NAEP tests in reading and math taken by 4th and 8th graders in 44 states between 1990 and 1996. Seen as a national barometer of student achievement, the federally sponsored tests are given periodically to representative samples of 2,500 students in participating states.

Nationwide, the report shows, students' scores in math improved during that period by an average of 1 percentile point a year. Scores shot up fastest in Texas, North Carolina, and Michigan, where the gains averaged 2 to 2.5 percentile points a year.

The highest average scorers, however, tended to be in Northern, mostly rural states, such as Maine, North Dakota, New Hampshire, and Montana. The lowest-scoring states included eight Southern states, California, and New Mexico. Researchers attributed most of differences among states to demographics.

To put states on a more level playing field, the researchers adjusted the scores to account for socioeconomic differences in their student populations.

By that "value added" measure, a student in top-ranked Texas still scored an average of 11 percentile points higher in math than a student from a family with similar education, income levels, and other characteristics in last-ranked California.

Those differences, Mr. Grissmer said, were due to the kinds of educational investments states made in the '80s and early '90s.

Like most of the states scoring high on that index, Texas in those years had smaller-than-average classes, higher rates of participation in prekindergarten, and greater percentages of teachers who reported being satisfied with their teaching resources.

Resource Targeting Urged

California schools, in comparison, were still reeling from the effects of Proposition 13, the 1978 ballot initiative that curtailed property-tax revenue. The tax reductions, combined with a poor state economy, led to ballooning class sizes across the state, according to Mr. Grissmer.

Where the
States Stand

The Rand Corp. report looked at average gains of 4th and 8th graders in 44 states on the  National Assessment of Education Progress.

Average Annual Gain 1990-1996

Highest Gains



North Carolina










West Virginia




Rhode Island






Lowest Gains











North Dakota










Source: Rand Corp.

"That's probably the premier example of what happens when resources get pretty frayed," he said. California has since launched a program to cut the number of pupils in K-3 classes from 29 to 20.

What didn't make an impact on a state's student performance, the researchers found, were teachers' salary levels, their years of experience, or the percentage of teachers with a master's degree.

That finding runs counter to some state-level studies suggesting that effective teachers have a lasting effect on students' academic achievement.

And Mr. Grissmer himself appeared to be skeptical of those conclusions. He noted, for example, that the data were collected when teachers were in ample supply—a contrast with current shortage conditions in many places and certain subject areas.

What's more, he said, teachers' impact could be "partly buried in family effects." That's because schools with more affluent school populations tend to have better-paid and better-qualified teachers.

In fact, a central theme of the research is that all of the improvement efforts states tried—including class-size reductions as well as increases in teacher salaries—had more of an impact on disadvantaged or minority students.

That's why Mr. Grissmer suggests that states can leverage their education dollars by targeting funds to those groups.

"The issue is: How do you ensure that people spend money well and target money well?" said Eric A. Hanushek, an economist who criticized the report last week.

"Everybody believes there are some schools that use resources well, just as there are some schools that don't," added Mr. Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institute. "So if the policy is to put more resources in schools, you get an average gain which isn't very much."

Vol. 19, Issue 43, Page 8

Published in Print: August 2, 2000, as RAND Report Tracks State NAEP Gains
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