A NAEP Primer

March 13, 2002 5 min read
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The National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as “the nation’s report card,” has measured the achievement of America’s students in core subjects for more than 30 years. A brief history and description of the program follow:

1963: U.S. Commissioner of Education Francis Keppel appoints a committee to explore options for tracking educational progress in the United States. In 1966, the committee recommends that a battery of tests be developed to monitor achievement nationwide.

1969: The first NAEP assessment, in science, is given. To alleviate fears that the tests will result in a “national curriculum,” the exams are written to broad testing objectives that do not reflect the particular curriculum of any single state or district. The tests are given to a nationally representative sample of 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds, rather than to students at specific grade levels. A matrix-sampling design distributes large numbers of test questions across different schools, districts, and states, so that no student takes the entire exam. Results are reported for the nation, for regions of the country, and for major demographic subgroups on a question-by-question basis, indicating the percentage of students who are able to answer each test item correctly.

1984: The first major redesign of NAEP takes place when responsibility for its development and administration is shifted from the Denver-based Education Commission of the States to the Educational Testing Service, in Princeton, N.J. Among the most noticeable changes: The tests are now administered in grades 4, 8, and 12, rather than by age; and summary scores are provided for each subject tested, typically on a scale of 0 to 500. To maintain the trend line, a decision is made to continue the original NAEP, at least temporarily, alongside the newer version. Eventually, these come to be known as “trend NAEP” and “main NAEP,” respectively.

Late 1980s: In the wake of A Nation at Risk, the influential 1983 critique of American education, pressure grows for a way to compare student achievement across states. In 1988, Congress passes legislation authorizing a voluntary, trial state NAEP assessment, the first of which is given in 1990. In states that opt to participate, separate, representative samples of students are selected to provide reliable state-level data. In 1996, the word “trial” is dropped from the state NAEP.

The 1998 law also creates a new management and governance structure for NAEP, shifting responsibility for setting policy to a broadly representative, 26-member governing board, appointed by the secretary of education but independent from the Department of Education. The National Center for Education Statistics, a branch of the department, retains responsibility for the technical quality of the survey and for administering the program.

1990: As required by the 1988 law, one of the first tasks of the National Assessment Governing Board, known as NAGB, is to find a way to report results against some standard for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. nAGB establishes three achievement levels— “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced"—for reporting NAEP results.

TODAY: NAEP consists of two distinct assessment programs that use different data-collection procedures, samples of students, test instruments, and reporting practices. “Trend NAEP” is a collection of reading, mathematics, writing, and science items that have been administered many times over the past three decades to a nationally representative sample of, on average, 5,000 students per subject per age. Results are reported for students at ages 9, 13, and 17 in math, reading, and science, and, until recently, in grades 4, 8, and 11 in writing.

To maintain the trend lines, the tests and their administration have changed very little over 30 years. The long-term trend assessment is scheduled to be administered once every four years; it will be given next in 2004, 2008, and 2012. In 1999, the governing board decided to discontinue the long-term-trend testing for writing because the data were no longer reliable.

“Main NAEP” periodically measures achievement in reading, math, science, writing, U.S. history, civics, geography, the arts, and other subjects in grades 4, 8, and 12. Main NAEP is designed to evolve over time to reflect changes in curriculum and instruction. For example, in math, students now use electronic calculators to answer some test questions. Because the tests change periodically, they can generate only short-term trends, over about a decade.

Main NAEP has two components, “national NAEP” and “state NAEP.” National NAEP assesses a nationally representative sample of about 15,000 students per subject per grade in grades 4, 8, and 12. Most subjects are not tested more often than once every four years. National NAEP occasionally includes “special studies” that are designed to gather information on particular aspects of students’ achievement, such as their oral- reading fluency, that do not rely on large-scale testing instruments.

State NAEP is administered to state-representative samples of about 2,500 students per subject per grade in each participating state. It is given only in grades 4 and 8 in reading, writing, math, and science (although it has not always been given in both grades in each of those subjects).

In addition to the testing instruments, each student who participates in NAEP answers a number of noncognitive, or background, questions about issues related to academic achievement, such as the number of hours spent watching television or completing homework. Questions on school characteristics and policies are also asked of principals at participating schools.

Into the future: The “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, made several key changes to NAEP. Beginning in 2002-03, every state must participate in biennial state NAEP assessments in math and reading. Districts that receive federal Title I money must participate in NAEP if they are selected as part of the NAEP sample. In the past, states picked up the extra cost of training teachers and bringing in additional personnel to administer state NAEP. Under the new federal law, both the sampling and administration for national and state NAEP are combined, and the federal government picks up the full cost. The first combined national and state sample, which is in the field right now, includes about 100,000 students per subject per grade.

—Lynn Olson

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A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as A NAEP Primer


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