Reading & Literacy

Are Rising Grad Rates Pulling Down NAEP Scores?

By Liana Loewus — May 10, 2016 6 min read
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High school seniors are doing worse in math and about the same in reading as they were two years ago, according to the latest results from “the nation’s report card.”

While disappointing, the scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress offer little insight into the impact of the Common Core State Standards on student performance, experts say, because 12th graders spent most of their school experience working toward different benchmarks.

The results, released April 27, also show that the average scores for the lowest performers—those in the 10th and 25th percentiles—dropped significantly in both subjects. Those declines, experts say, are likely a product of the nation’s rising graduation rates.

“The vast majority of kids who drop out are not doing well in school,” said Jack Buckley, a former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the part of the U.S. Department of Education that administers NAEP. “In this case, we’re keeping those kids in school at historic rates, which means we’re assessing them.”

A nationally representative group of 13,200 12th graders took the math NAEP in 2015, and 18,700 took the reading test. NAEP, which is given periodically to different grades and in different subjects, is considered a barometer of U.S. students’ achievement. This year’s 12th grade results do not include state-level data because of funding constraints, said Peggy G. Carr, the acting commissioner of the NCES.

‘Be Patient, But Not Passive’

In math, the average score was 152 on a 300-point scale, which was nearly 2 points lower than the 2013 average and constituted a statistically significant decrease. “I think the decline is real,” said Carr of the math scores.

In reading, the average score was 287 on a 500-point scale—statistically similar to the average score two years ago.

Losing Ground

In both reading and mathematics, scores for high school seniors in the lowest-performing percentiles fell between 2013 and 2015. At the highest level—the 90th percentile—12th grade achievement rose in reading and stayed the same in math over the same period of time.


SOURCE: National Assessment of Educational Progress

“Over the past seven years, schools have undergone some of the most significant changes in decades—work that is being led by educators who are retooling their classroom practices to adapt to new and higher standards,” said U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. in a statement. “We know the results of those changes will not be seen overnight, so we need to be patient—but not passive—in continuing to pursue the goal of preparing all students for success after high school.”

Longitudinally speaking, the latest math scores are statistically similar to those in 2005, the first year that’s valid for comparison. Reading scores have dropped since the test was first given in 1992.

When the scores are disaggregated by low, middle, and high performers, it’s clear that the low performers are losing ground. Between 2013 and 2015, students at or below the 10th percentile in reading went down an average of 6 score points on the assessment—the largest drop in a two-year period since 1994. The high achievers, on the other hand—those at or above the 90th percentile—did significantly better in reading, gaining 2 scale-score points, on average, while staying stagnant in math.

“In the case of reading, ... students at the top of the distribution are going up, and students at the bottom of the distribution are going down,” said Carr. “I think that’s something we need to think about.”

The declines provide “evidence that is corroborated by all kinds of other evidence that we need to do a better job of supporting in particular our most vulnerable kids,” said Daria Hall, the vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust, an education policy group that works to close achievement gaps.

1 in 3 Ready for College

Results for NAEP are also reported at three achievement levels: “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced.” Proficient indicates students are successful with challenging, grade-level content.

Twenty-five percent of 12th graders scored at or above the proficient level in math. In reading, 37 percent of seniors scored at or above the proficient level.

Starting in 2013, NAEP also began reporting on the percentage of students who are considered academically prepared for college, meaning they should be able to do first-year college work without needing remedial courses. To reach that threshold, students had to score at least a 163 in math and a 302 in reading.

In both reading and math, just 37 percent of high school seniors scored at the college-ready level. In contrast, the national on-time graduation rate for students in 2014 was 82 percent.

“The governing board is pleased that graduation rates are increasing across the country, but at the same time, we are not making the progress we need to for postsecondary, work, and military participation,” said William J. Bushaw, the executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP.

“We need to be doing everything we can to ensure a diploma truly signals readiness for what’s next,” said Hall.

The data also show that large racial and ethnic achievement gaps persist. White and Asian students continue to significantly outperform their black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native peers.

While 47 percent of Asian students and 32 percent of white students scored at or above proficient in math, just 7 percent of black students and 12 percent of Hispanic students did the same.

No changes occurred in the black-white and Hispanic-white score gaps for math or reading between 2013 and 2015.

In a bright spot, the average math scores for English-language learners rose by 6 score points over two years.

That change, Carr explained, was primarily driven by an increase in the number of Asian students, a group that tends to perform well on NAEP, who identified as English-learners.

Pre-Common-Core Experiences

Twelfth graders weren’t the only ones who saw declines on NAEP lately.

The 2015 results for 4th and 8th grade students, released in October, showed math scores had fallen for those grades as well. Reading scores were steady for 4th graders but declined for 8th graders since 2013.

On seeing those scores, advocates placed blame in many places, though particularly with the common-core standards, which more than 40 states are now using.

Reactions to the 12th grade scores, however, have been more tempered.

That’s in part “because for 12th graders, the bulk of their educational experience is pre-core,” said Buckley, who is now the senior vice president for research at the College Board.

The students who took the test this round are too old, he said. “This is not a referendum on them.”

The common standards were adopted in 2010 and 2011, but many states didn’t truly switch over to them for several years. In addition, many individual school districts chose to implement the standards in just a few grades at a time, and often, they started with the earliest grades. So it’s unclear how much exposure 12th graders really had to the common core. Four years from now, Buckley said, the 12th grade scores are likely to get “a lot more attention.”

Because this round of 12th grade scores didn’t break down results by state, it’s impossible to disaggregate the results by common-core adopters and nonadopters.

It’s also worth noting that many people simply place less stock in the 12th grade scores. Seniors know the scores will not affect them, so some believe they take the test less seriously.

But Carr of the NCES said that, based on data about omitted questions and other factors, motivation isn’t much of a concern—and it wouldn’t explain a drop in scores. “Students are not interacting with this assessment any differently than they have in the past,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2016 edition of Education Week as Scores Decline for Low Performers on 12th Grade NAEP


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