Low Scorers Losing Ground on NAEP

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 24, 2018 5 min read
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Across the board, struggling American students are falling behind, while top performers are rising higher on the test dubbed “the nation’s report card.”

A nationally representative group of nearly 585,000 4th and 8th graders took the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2017, the first time the tests were given digitally. The results, released this month, show no change at all for 4th grade in either subject or for 8th graders in math since the tests were last given in 2015. Eighth graders on average made only a 1 point gain in reading, to 267, on NAEP’s 500-point scale.

The meager reading gain was driven entirely by the top 25 percent of students. During the past decade, 8th grade reading was the only test in which the average score for both high and low performers rose. By contrast, in math, the share of students performing at the “below basic” (30 percent) and “advanced” levels (10 percent) both increased significantly since 2007. The same pattern emerged in 4th grade math and reading.

Those changes were all statistically significant, and they point to what Peggy Carr, the National Center for Education Statistics’ associate commissioner for assessment, called a “bifurcation” of student performance. American students’ performance on international assessments such as the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, or PIRLS, and the Trends in International Math and Science Study, or TIMSS, show the same spreading gaps.

“That’s disappointing and concerning—not that high achievers are going up, but that low-achieving students are declining,” said Scott Norton, the deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “Regardless of the reasons for that gap increase, ... all of our members are concerned about that and want to look at it more closely.”

Gaps and Trends

Achievement gaps remained stubbornly wide for particular student groups, too. In grade 4 math, the average achievement fell by 4 scale points for students with disabilities, 2 points for urban students, and 1 point for students in poverty. No other grade or subject showed changes for individual student groups.

Over the past decade, the results for students with special needs have been grimmer. Those with disabilities nationwide had an average scale score of 214 out of 500 in 4th grade reading in 2017, right at the cutoff for NAEP’s “basic” level of performance That’s the lowest for this group since 2003. At 8th grade, students with disabilities had an average score of 247, about the same as a decade ago and down from a high of 250 in 2011.

Similarly, 8th grade English-language learners have not improved significantly in reading since 2003.

The results are coming under intense scrutiny from states, both because of the change in testing format from paper and pencil to computers and because they are being released at a time when many states are transitioning to new assessment systems under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

"[NAEP] is our only really solid national trend line that we have nowadays,” Norton said.

Average scores for most states remained unchanged from 2015 in either grade or subject, and more states saw declines than improvements. Florida was the only state to improve on average in both 4th and 8th grade math and 8th grade reading from 2015, which elicited praise from U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

“Florida leaders, administrators, and, most importantly, teachers are to be commended for their continued efforts on behalf of students,” DeVos said of the choice-friendly state in a statement on the NAEP results.

Schools run by the Department of Defense improved in reading at 8th grade. No states improved in reading at 4th grade, but nine—California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Washington—and the Defense Department schools improved at 8th grade.

Of the 27 large urban districts that also took part in a targeted NAEP study in 2017, none declined in reading, and a few—San Diego’s 4th graders and 8th graders in Albuquerque, N.M., and Boston—improved since 2015. Those results follow a decade in which the nation’s urban districts have improved faster than the national average.

“Looking more closely at the results indicates that instructional changes and professional learning support are paying off in some districts. However, more professional support is needed for teachers in order to see more broad-based benefits nationwide,” said Matt Larson, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, in a statement. “We need to ensure that we are providing each and every student with access to high-quality mathematics curriculum, instruction, and expectations.”

Move to Online Tests

About 80 percent of students in 2017 took NAEP on digital devices, while 20 percent used pencil and paper. The National Center for Education Statistics compared students’ answers to the same questions in digital and print tests in 2017 and 2015 to account for so-called “mode effects” in the 2017 results.

State schools chiefs, including John White of Louisiana, voiced concern that states whose students had less experience taking tests on computers would be at a disadvantage; Louisiana was among those with the biggest drops in 4th grade math and reading. A technical analysis by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy found that states that had not previously used online testing showed larger average declines from 2015 and 2017 in grade 4 reading and math and grade 8 reading than those that had given online tests before. The study estimated those discrepancies could explain 15 percent of differences in score changes for reading, and 11 percent of the changes in math in 4th grade, though the report notes the findings are preliminary.

Both NCES Commissioner James Woodward and Carr said they were confident in the adjusted results. “We’re going to learn a lot more about what students know and can do—not just students’ answers, but how they arrived at those answers—through the digital platform.”

Other national and international tests have also seen differences in student performance as they moved from print to digital formats.

NCES has been studying such test transitions for more than 15 years, according to Sean P. “Jack” Buckley, a former NCES commissioner and now the senior vice president for research and evaluation at the American Institutes for Research. “I know it’s something NCES agonized over. . . . It’s not overblown,” he said, noting that NAEP’s writing assessment found the difference in students’ digital writing performance warranted starting a new trend line for the study.

Experts noted most states use computer-based assessments for their own tests, and students’ familiarity with digital devices in and out of school has dramatically increased.

“At some point,” Buckley said, “paper and pencil become archaic.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2018 edition of Education Week as NAEP: Gaps Widen Between High Fliers and Low Scorers


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