Student Achievement

What It All Means: Analysis of NAEP Results Pours In

By Erik W. Robelen — November 07, 2011 4 min read
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With a fresh round of national test data released last week for reading and math, a variety of analysts have sought to weigh in. I’ll highlight a few examples I’ve come across. (For the full EdWeek treatment, see my story from last week.)

First, the National Journal today posted three separate opinion pieces, including from Michael Petrilli at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Sandy Kress, a former education aide to President George W. Bush, and former Arizona schools chief Lisa Graham Keegan.

Kress cautions against missing the good news in the results when taking the long-term perspective. For one, he notes that even as achievement gaps have proven very difficult to close, both black and Hispanic students have made significant gains over time (a point we also made in the EdWeek story last week). He noted for instance, that in math, students of color are achieving, on average, at roughly two-and-a-half grade levels above where they performed in 1992. The biggest area for concern, he said, is reading.

Kress concludes: “Yes, let’s be sober about where we are and acknowledge how very much more we need to do to reach our goals. But let’s also be true about and appreciate the gains we’ve made.”

Petrilli, meanwhile, wonders whether the 8th grade gains in reading could be attributed in part to the federal Reading First program, which was in its ‘heyday’ in the mid 2000s (but was eliminated a couple of years ago). He notes, for instance, that the 8th graders who made the greatest progress since the early 2000s were the lowest-achievers—"the very population Reading First was designed to help.”

Richard Innes from the Bluegrass Institute argues in a blog post that Kentucky’s 4th and 8th grade scores in reading are “probably untrustworthy.” The reason? The large exclusion rate for students with disabilities.

(For those not familiar with this issue of inclusion/exclusion, students are selected to participate in NAEP based on a sampling procedure designed to yield a representative sample. Once selected, students with disabilities or those identified as English-language learners may be offered accommodations or excluded altogether. States and jurisdictions vary in their proportions of special-needs students and in their policies on inclusion and the use of accommodations.)

Innes notes that while, across the nation, the exclusion rate for participation on NAEP has declined over time, it has actually increased in Kentucky. The national rate was 3 percent in 2011 for 4th grade reading, he said, while in Kentucky it was 8 percent. (That is, 8 percent of ALL students initially selected for testing in Kentucky were students with disabilities that the state chose to exclude from the testing. That level was tied as the highest with Maryland and New Jersey.)

“Very simply, Kentucky excluded eight out of every 100 students from the 2011 4th grade NAEP reading assessment,” he writes. “Those excluded students as a group would unquestionably score very low on NAEP had they been allowed to participate. In fact, ... most of those students probably can’t read at all and would likely receive close to a nonperformance score if they were presented with a NAEP test booklet.”

Kentucky’s 8th grade exclusion rate was also among the highest across states, at 7 percent.

Also, over at Learning the Language, my colleague Lesli Maxwell looks at student achievement among English-language learners, including some discussion of exclusion rates for those students.

At the Quick and the Ed, Kevin Carey of Education Sector offers some initial thoughts, including the point that amid the economic recession, “it’s good to see that student achievement in reading and math appears not to have suffered.”

Taking the larger, historic perspective in math, he writes: “Long-term NAEP trends in mathematics, particularly in elementary school, put the lie to any assertion that significant improvements to the national education system are impossible.”

Carey also notes that, when comparing the 2009 and 2011 results, “states were far more likely to get better than get worse. Thirteen states improved their 8th-grade math scores; one declined. Ten states improved their 8th-grade reading scores; none declined. This is what you would expect from a federal system of government where most of the educational money and decision-making power remains in the states. It suggests that state leaders can take steps to improve education, but many are not.”

Meanwhile, over at the new Sputnik blog (an independent opinion blog hosted at, Robert Slavin homes in on the flat 4th grade reading scores.

“Writing about flat NAEP scores is like writing about the sun rising,” says Slavin. “There is nothing new or exciting about this news. ... It is time we focus intensely on scaling up evidence-based successful practices. Our kids deserve, and our economy needs, a laser focus on changing these sadly predictable outcomes.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.