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Puerto Rico Falls ‘Below Basic’ on Math NAEP

By Lynn Olson — April 03, 2007 3 min read
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Long-awaited results on how Puerto Rico’s students fared on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in math are finally in—and they’re not good.

Only 12 percent of 4th graders and 6 percent of 8th graders in public schools scored at or above the “basic” level on “the nation’s report card” in 2005. So few students scored at the “proficient” or “advanced” level that the percentages rounded to zero.

The results for 2003, also released for the first time last week, were even worse. That year, only 9 percent of 4th graders and 4 percent of 8th graders scored at the basic level or above.

“The Nation’s Report Card: Mathematics 2003 and 2005 Performance in Puerto Rico” is posted by the National Center for Education Statistics.

In comparison, nearly eight in 10 public school 4th graders stateside and nearly seven in 10 8th graders scored at or above basic in 2005. (The national averages for 2003 and 2005 do not include the scores for Puerto Rico, although plans are to include it in the national sample from now on.)

“These reports reveal some major challenges for the institution of Puerto Rican education,” said Luis A. Ramos, a member of the National Assessment Governing board, which oversees and sets policy for NAEP.

“It is important to keep in mind that the results we are talking about today represent a starting point to which we can compare future scores in order to measure growth in achievement over time,” he said. “I encourage educators throughout the island to closely examine today’s results and look for areas of both strength and weakness.”

Challenges in Translation

But Puerto Rican officials urged caution in interpreting the results because of the challenges involved in giving the exams in a language other than English.

The tests given in the U.S. commonwealth broke new ground for NAEP. It is the first time the tests have been administered in a whole jurisdiction entirely in Spanish for students taught primarily in that language.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires that all states and other jurisdictions receiving Title I money for disadvantaged children, including Puerto Rico, participate in NAEP’s math and reading tests every two years. Because of the difficulty in translating a test of English-reading skills into Spanish, public school students in Puerto Rico take only the math NAEP.

But even in mathematics, translating a test into another language can pose big challenges, as federal officials have found out.

Puerto Rico has about 604,000 public school students, in 1,538 schools. The math NAEP was given to a representative sample of about 3,000 students in 100 schools in each grade each year. Private schools did not participate in the trial NAEP administrations in Puerto Rico.

When officials at the National Center for Education Statistics, the arm of the U.S. Department of Education that administers the test, conducted an internal review of the 2003 results for Puerto Rico, they found students had skipped large numbers of test items and answered a far higher percentage of items incorrectly than did students nationally. Other items did not function as expected, meaning there was a mismatch between expected and actual performance.

Concerns about the quality of the Puerto Rico data led to a number of revisions in the translation procedures for the 2005 test, including changes in the vocabulary and wording of some questions to reflect the distinctive linguistic and cultural characteristics of Puerto Rico. Officials also gave students more time on the 2005 exam than their counterparts in the 50 states. Because of those changes, NCES officials cautioned that the results should not be compared across the two years.

The need to translate and adapt the tests so that Puerto Rico can participate in NAEP opens a broad discussion about the impact of language and culture on teaching and learning, said José A. Rivera, the NAEP coordinator for Puerto Rico’s education department. “The questions range from what are the cultural differences in teaching math, to the impact of the language that is used to construct word problems,” he said.

He also noted that Puerto Rican teachers use many different math texts, many of them translated into Spanish. If the translations are not uniform, he said, the concepts probably are being taught in different ways, which could further impact NAEP results.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2007 edition of Education Week as Puerto Rico Falls ‘Below Basic’ on Math NAEP

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