A Primer on NAEP: How the National Test Fits Into the Assessment Landscape

By Liana Loewus — November 11, 2015 3 min read
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The assessment landscape is, to put it lightly, confusing.

Last week, the results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress were released. But exactly what kind of test is NAEP? And where does it fit in with the dozens of other assessments—and the purported over-testing phenomena that we’ve been hearing so much about?

Here’s the scoop on NAEP:

Basics on the National Test

NAEP, also known as the nation’s report card, is administered by the National Center for Education Statistics, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education. But a separate group—the National Assessment Governing Board—decides on NAEP’s policies.

Rather than a single test, NAEP is actually a series of tests given in a variety of subjects, including math, reading, science, writing, the arts, civics, geography, economics, U.S. history, and “technology and engineering literacy.”

Students at three grade levels take NAEP: 4th, 8th, and 12th. The reading and math tests are given every two years (though not all grades take them at the same time). Other subjects are administered less frequently.

NAEP is often called a “barometer” of U.S. students’ achievement because a nationally representative sample of students take it at any given time. It’s important to remember that different students are taking the test with each administration—so it’s not possible to track individual students’ growth between years. The content of the tests changes about every decade to reflect what’s being taught in U.S. schools.

In addition to the national data, NAEP releases data for each individual state and for 21 urban districts.

There’s also a separate NAEP test for reading and math called the long-term trend assessment, which is given every four years. Samples of students at ages 9, 13, or 17 years take the test, and the content remains relatively unchanged. The results are meant to show trends over time going back to the 1970s. (Usually, when people talk about NAEP scores they’re talking about the main NAEP, though, and not the long-term trends.)

What Is the Test Like?

The NAEP test is quite short—it only takes about an hour to administer. For comparison’s sake, the common-core-aligned standardized tests take students between about seven and 10 hours to complete, often over multiple days.

The NAEP tests have been given by paper-and-pencil, but starting in 2017 NCES will begin moving to computer-based assessments.

Historically, NAEP has been considered a difficult test with high cut scores—proficient on NAEP means that students are successful with challenging content at that grade level. Over the years, some states have received criticism for setting expectations for proficiency on their standardized tests that were far below NAEP’s.

Sample Math and Reading Questions

Here’s an example of a grade 4 mathematics question. This is the type of question a student considered “proficient” can answer correctly.

And here’s a proficient-level question for 8th grade reading. (The essay it refers to is here.):

NAEP also collects information on students’ educational experiences, teacher training, school policies, and other noncognitive factors through questionnaires.

So What Can the Scores Really Tell Us?

As researchers often explain, the only thing the NAEP results tell us for certain are the NAEP results.

Each time the scores are released, advocates from all sides come out claiming they prove that particular education policies or reforms did or didn’t work. But NAEP scores cannot explain direct cause-and-effect relationships. Such claims have now become known as “misNAEPery.”

(For more on this, read my colleague Stephen Sawchuk’s article “When Bad Things Happen to Good NAEP Data.”)

That’s not to say the test scores don’t offer useful information. With careful analyses, conducted and vetted by researchers, the scores can offer clues and hypotheses about what educational practices may or may not be effective. But that kind of data mining and analysis takes time.

What About All the Other Tests Students Take? Where Does This Fit in?

As you may have heard, the Obama administration as well as a variety of other education groups have recently committed to helping scale back the number of tests students take. For the most part, this conversation has been about state standardized tests—which are the tests students take in grades 3-8 and once in high school to comply with federal law—and the benchmark tests that districts use to prepare students for the state tests.

Generally speaking, NAEP has been outside of the fray of the testing debate. NAEP is a one-time test given every few years to different, randomly selected students. And many, many students will graduate without ever taking it.

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