The nation’s largest states largely matched or fell below recent nationwide averages on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading, math, and science. Several of those states, however, made significant strides over a roughly two-decade period, a study released last week says.
The first-time examination of NAEP scores from 2009 and 2011 for students in California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas reveals that Texas alone beat the national average more than once in any of the three subjects. The Lone Star State did it twice, in 8th grade math and science in 2011.
At the same time, signs of progress were evident for some states over time, going as far back as 1990. Florida showed significant gains in reading at both grade levels, for example, and Texas showed better-than-average progress on math tests across multiple subgroups.
Well over a dozen student subgroups in those five states improved more than their peers nationwide on various tests over specific time periods during the 21-year span. California’s black students in 4th grade math, for example, scored the biggest gain of any subgroup on any of the tests among those states.
A statement from the National Assessment Governing Board accompanying the report said these states were important to highlight because they were regionally representative and reflected the “overall direction of educational progress” in the nation.
A new analysis of data from “the nation’s report card” shows some of the biggest states posting gains in math and reading, but still falling behind the national average in many cases.
SOURCE: National Assessment of Educational Progress
Jack Buckley, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, who presented the data in a conference call with reporters, said the five states’ demographic changes have mirrored the nation’s shifting landscape of public school enrollment, which fell from 73 percent white in 1990 to 54 percent in 2011. California and Texas now have majority Hispanic enrollments among 8th graders tested, he noted, while Florida is a majority-minority state in its enrollment.
Of the 9 million families nationwide reported to be living below the federal poverty line, 3.4 million live in the states highlighted in the report.
“There’s a lot of good news in here when you really start to break it down,” Mr. Buckley said.
Big Steps, Baby Steps
In all, the five states examined in the report have about 19 million of the nation’s 49 million public school students, or just under 40 percent of total U.S. enrollment.
The NAEP math and reading scores come from as far back as 1990, depending on state and grade level. The math and reading tests are based on a scale score of 0-to-500, and the science tests on a 300-point scale score.
From 1992 to 2011, Florida students posted the greatest gain on the 4th grade reading exams (16 points, boosting it to 225) of any of the five states. It beat the national average score (220) and national average gain (5 points), rising from below the national average in 1992. Four of Florida’s subgroups (black and white students, those with disabilities, and those eligible for free or reduced-price lunch) also beat average gains.
Florida’s story was similar for 8th graders on NAEP reading: It showed the most improvement among the five states from 1998 to 2011 (8 points) and had the only two subgroups (students with disabilities and blacks) whose progress outpaced the national average for those groups.
“There is something real going on there,” Mr. Buckley said of Florida.
In 4th grade math, meanwhile, both California and Florida had 26-point gains from 1992 to 2011, beating the national average gain of 22 points. But California’s average score in 2011 still trailed the national average, while Florida’s matched it. California’s black 4th graders also had the single biggest gain of any subgroup on any of the tests, improving 43 points from 1992 to 2011.
From 1990 to 2011, Texas 8th graders posted the biggest math gains among big states, improving 32 points on average, and saw progress among blacks, Hispanics, whites, students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and students with disabilities, topping the average national gains for those subgroups.
Texas’ results in 8th grade science, with an average score of 153, topped both the national average (151) and the average from other states examined in the study.
Words of Caution
Mr. Buckley warned, however, that he would be skeptical of any claims that specific policies in specific states were the cause of any particularly strong performance.
“NAEP is very good at giving us a snapshot of where kids are,” he said, but not good at demonstrating how the students achieved those results.
The report also doesn’t specify whether gains occurred steadily over an entire two-decade period or in shorter bursts, noted Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
In Texas’ case, for example, Mr. Loveless conducted a study of reading and math gains on NAEP through 2009 that compared test-score gains using two methods, with one method using only data since 2003 for all states, and another method using different starting dates for test-score data. His results showed that in comparison to other states, Texas appeared to achieve most of its achievement gains before 2003.
“There are all kinds of complications when you use cross-sectional data,” Mr. Loveless said, referencing the fact that the new NAEP report does not track cohorts of students over time.
The report also broke down proficiency rates in 2011 among subgroups, including white, black, Hispanic, and low-income students, those with disabilities, and urban vs. suburban schools. All the average scores of the five big states, as well as the national average, fell below the “proficient” level.
Town and Country
In the area of math, only 29 percent of urban 8th graders were deemed proficient or better nationally in 2011 (reaching a score of 299 or higher). But 39 percent of Texas students reached that level, significantly better than the other four mega states as well as the nation.
In fact, Texas’ urban students did nearly as well as its suburban students, 41 percent of whom scored proficient or better on the 8th grade NAEP, beating the national average of 37 percent and all other large states’ proficiency rates in suburban areas as well.
By contrast, New York’s urban students were, on average, less proficient than urban students nationwide on both math tests and in 8th grade science. They matched the national average for proficiency (26 percent) in 8th grade reading.
Illinois stood out for not having any subgroups achieve gains above the national average in reading, math, or science, and the state failed to post a gain overall that beat any of the other four large states or the national average. It was also the only state in the report to see declines in NAEP scores, specifically in 8th grade reading and science, although in both cases, the drops of 1 point on each test were not considered statistically significant.
However, 23 percent of Illinois’ 8th grade Hispanic students scored proficient or better on the reading exam in 2011, beating the national average of 18 percent.
A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2013 edition of Education Week as 5 Largest States Rival or Lag Nation on NAEP Scores