Math Climbs, Reading Flat On ’03 NAEP

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo & Michelle Galley — November 19, 2003 7 min read
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State and national efforts to raise student achievement are continuing to yield far greater progress in mathematics than in reading, judged by the results of the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The tests, administered for the first time to state samples of students in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, show significant gains in math scores for the nation’s 4th and 8th graders—continuing a decade-long trend—as well as larger percentages of students reaching proficiency in the subject than ever before.

Results of the 2003 mathematics and reading assessments of the National Assessment of Educational Progress are available from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Reading achievement has proved more stubborn, with scores settling back to about the same level as in 1992, when the current version of the test in that subject was first given. But federal education officials said they were encouraged that the reading numbers have held steady, despite large increases in the number of Hispanic test-takers, many of whom are still learning English.

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige praised the outcome, declaring last week that he was “delighted and pleased, encouraged by the results,” particularly what he described as students’ “stellar” performance in math.

“Every single child can learn, and these results show that,” Mr. Paige said at a Nov. 13 press conference held here to announce the results. “This is an important turning point in American educational history.”

That enthusiasm, though, may be tempered by the data: Most students still cannot demonstrate mastery over the challenging subject matter on either test. And while minority students showed some improvements, they are still struggling to catch up with their white peers.

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See the accompanying table, “March Toward Proficiency.” (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Known as “the nation’s report card,” the federally sponsored NAEP was given to some 340,000 students in each subject, with samples considered representative both nationally and for each state.

The math tests included questions on mathematical operations, measurement, geometry, statistics, and functions. The reading exams were designed to gauge students’ ability to comprehend literary and informational passages. Both tests feature multiple-choice questions and those that require short written answers.

The results will provide benchmarks for the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires states to participate in the national assessment as a way of validating states’ progress on their own tests. That provision of the federal law kicked in this past spring.

Adding It Up

In mathematics, 4th graders scored an average 234 points on a 500-point scale, gaining an average of 10 points since the math test was last given, in 2000. What’s more, 4th grade students in every state that took part in the previous assessment showed a marked improvement on this year’s test in both their scores and the proportion attaining the “proficient” level in the subject.

Dramatic increases occurred in the proportion of 4th graders demonstrating proficiency on the test, meaning they could show solid academic performance and competence in handling challenging material. Nationally, 31 percent of 4th grade pupils scored at or above proficient, compared with 22 percent in 2000.

The three NAEP achievement levels, “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced,” are considered rigorous standards, but the levels have not been proved valid or reliable. Federal officials say that the levels are useful, however, in determining what students know.

Students in the 8th grade scored an average 276 points in math, up from 272 in 2000. At that level, 27 percent of the students scored at or above proficient, a bump of 2 percentage points since the last test.

More students also reached at least the “basic” level in mathematics, including 76 percent of 4th graders, and 67 percent of 8th graders.

Overall, the math scores are “wonderful news,” said Johnny Lott, the president of the Reston, Va.-based National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

“I’ve never seen such a drastic improvement” in NAEP scores, said Mr. Lott. “We’re finally seeing the results of something that started over a decade ago,” he said referring to the standards-based reform movement that his organization helped start.

Reading Goals Unfulfilled

In reading, despite an unprecedented push by states to improve instruction and materials over the past several years, the news was not as encouraging.

Fourth graders who took the test scored an average 218 points on the 500-point scale, a 1-point dip since the previous test, in 2002, though the difference is not considered statistically significant.

In 1992, when the reading test was first given, 4th graders scored an average 217 points. While 63 percent of 4th graders reached at least the basic-performance level this year—meaning they have partially mastered the fundamental knowledge and skills in a given grade—fewer than a third were considered proficient.

Eighth graders scored an average 263 points, a 3-point gain since 1992, but 1 point less than last year, and that short-term change is considered significant. About three-fourths of 8th graders could demonstrate at least basic skills on the test; about a third showed proficiency.

While school improvement efforts have focused intensely on both subjects, experts say the lackluster results in reading are not surprising, given the range of school- and nonschool-related factors that can affect students’ comprehension skills.

“Math is something children learn in school and really nowhere else,” said Cathy M. Roller, the research director for the International Reading Association in Newark, Del. “Reading comprehension is something that develops much more broadly, and children’s background knowledge and experiences have much more of an effect on their ability to comprehend” than it does on their learning math, she said.

Minority students continued to struggle to catch up with their white peers on both tests. In math, black 4th graders, for example, averaged 216 points, a 13-point gain over the previous test but still 27 points lower than white students’ average. Black 8th graders have gained 8 points since 2000, scoring an average of 252, which is still 36 points below their white peers.

Hispanic students also improved in math, with 4th graders gaining 14 points, for an average score of 222, and 8th graders improving by 6 points, to 259. Non-Hispanic white students averaged 243 for 4th graders and 288 for 8th graders.

Meanwhile, in reading, minority students showed no significant progress.

In several states, though, they made dramatic improvements.

For example, in 1998, 69 percent of Hispanic students in New York state did not reach the “basic” level in 4th grade reading, a proportion that dropped to 49 percent this year.

In South Carolina, the share of 4th graders from low-income families who did not demonstrate basic-level work in math dropped from 57 percent in 2000 to 31 percent this year.

Overall, Hispanic students in 15 states and African- American students in 21 states saw progress in moving out of the “below basic” level on the 8th grade math assessment, according to Ross Weiner, the policy director for the Education Trust, a Washington research and advocacy group.

“Getting kids out of below-basic is so important because these are the kids who are really struggling with basic skills,” Mr. Weiner said.

Delaware showed “dramatic gains” in closing its gap between minority and white students, he said. In 1992, the state showed 65 percent of African- American students in the 4th grade reading at the below-basic level. This year, that proportion decreased to 46 percent.

Data Tracking

Several states saw considerable overall improvement.

On the 4th grade math assessment, South Carolina students showed the most improvement in their scale scores, with a 16-point increase, followed by California, which had a 14-point gain. South Carolina also showed the largest increase in 8th grade scores, up 12 points, to 277.

In reading, Delaware was the only state to show significant improvement in its 4th grade score, jumping 4 points, to 218. The score for Massachusetts’ 4th graders dropped by 6 points since last year’s test, to 238. None of the states has shown improvement on the 8th grade reading test since last year.

Federal officials released the results primarily in an abridged printed form, with a complete version available through the Web site of the National Center for Education Statistics, the arm of the Department of Education that manages NAEP.

Printed copies of the full report, which include more in-depth analysis, will not be available until next spring, NCES officials said. Because the tests will now be conducted every two years, as required under the No Child Left Behind law, and results are to be released within six months of giving the test, officials said the printed report cards that had been the standard format for the results would likely take longer to be published.

That announcement met with criticism from some longtime followers of NAEP.

Richard G. Innes, a Kentucky education activist, said vital data about the test have become harder and harder to find.

“The data tool [on the Web] is fairly awkward to use sometimes,” he said. “Some of the data are buried, and it makes it very difficult to find the information you are looking for.”

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