Assessment

Math NAEP Delivers Some Good News

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — August 08, 2001 6 min read
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The nation’s 4th and 8th graders have earned another positive report card in mathematics, as their performance continued on a path of steady improvement that began a decade ago, according to the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

While the report released last week offers some welcome news on the progress schools are making in raising math achievement, education officials tempered their enthusiasm with concerns that most students are still not “proficient” in the subject, that the gap in the performance between white students and their black and Hispanic classmates has not narrowed, and that 12th graders have lost some of the ground gained since 1990.

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“The Nation’s Report Card: Mathematics 2000" is available from the National Center for Educational Statistics. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

“We are very pleased that the math scores are going up,” Gary W. Phillips, the acting U.S. commissioner of education statistics, said of the report, which includes both national and state-level results. “We’re not pleased, however, that the gap between the majority and minority is unabated.”

The results of the assessment—taken last year by a nationally representative sample of some 43,000 students from public and private schools—show gains in both the scale scores and achievement levels for students in the lower grades.

The sample of 14,000 4th graders, for example, scored an average of 228 on a 500-point scale, a 4-point jump since the test was last given in 1996, and 15 points higher than in 1990, when the current math test was first administered.

Nearly 70 percent of the students performed at or above the “basic” level—meaning they could perform simple calculations and mathematical functions. In 1996, 64 percent of 4th graders performed at the basic level or better, while just half did so in 1990.

The average score for 8th graders climbed to 275, a 3-point increase since 1996, and a gain of 12 points over the past decade. Two-thirds of the 16,000 8th graders who took the test scored at the basic level or higher, a gain of 4 percentage points over the last test, and 14 percentage points since 1990.

Students from the lowest- to the highest-performing levels along the scoring spectrum improved in both grades.

‘A Long Way To Go’

“Overall, the numbers are quite encouraging, and that was a pleasant surprise,” said R. James Milgram, a professor of mathematics at Stanford University. “We are still in a position of having a long way to go, but it appears that people are trying,” he said, and having some success.

Meanwhile, 12th graders’ performance, which had improved over the past decade, dipped with last year’s test, mirroring similar trends on international comparisons of the math achievement of 17-year-olds. The 13,000 students in the sample scored an average 301 points, a 3-point drop since 1996, which is considered statistically significant. The group averaged 294 points in 1990 and 299 points in 1992.

About two-thirds of the high school seniors performed at or above the basic level—meaning they showed procedural and conceptual knowledge in solving problems—a fall-off from the nearly 70 percent of students in the 1990 sample who did as well. The decline was attributed, in part, to poorer results for the lowest-performing students.

Fewer than a fourth of the students in any of the three grades—23 percent of 4th graders, 22 percent of 8th graders, and 14 percent of 12th graders—were considered “proficient” on the exam, and fewer than 5 percent of the students in each grade showed “advanced” knowledge and skill in the subject.

“Despite this improvement, it is clear that with only a quarter of our 4th and 8th graders performing at or above proficient levels on this exam, we are not doing enough,” U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said in a statement.

African-American and Hispanic students saw significant gains on the test, but have still not caught up to their white peers. The average score of 205 for black 4th graders, for example, represents a jump of 16 points over the past decade, and 5 points since 1996. Hispanic 4th graders scored an average of 212 points—6 points better than in 1996, and 14 points higher than a decade ago. A higher proportion of minority students in both grades also reached the basic level in the subject.

Nevertheless, white 4th graders maintained a lead of 30 points or more over their minority classmates throughout the decade. Similar gaps in performance persist in the other grades as well.

More troubling, experts said, is that fewer than 40 percent of black students, and fewer than half of Hispanic students, could show they were capable of at least basic skills, while 80 percent of white 4th graders and some three-fourths of white 8th and 12th graders performed at that level. Moreover, the difference in the proportion of white and minority students who are proficient in the subject has almost doubled during the decade.

“We believe that there is the educational know-how to get substantial achievement gains for kids,” said Amy Wilkins, a policy analyst for the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit group that works to improve education for disadvantaged children.

“The real problem now is a lack of political will. We know what to do, but we just don’t feel like doing it for some kids.”

As part of the test design, some students with disabilities or those with limited proficiency in English were allowed to receive accommodations—such as more time, or the use of adaptive technology—when taking the test; others were not.

In each of the grades, no significant differences turned up in the scale scores of the students who received such accommodations and those who did not.

State Results

About 200,000 other students in the 4th and 8th grades—representative samples from each of the 40 participating states, as well as the District of Columbia and several U.S. territories and other jurisdictions—also took the NAEP math test. That testing produced state-level results.

Most of the states chalked up at least small gains in their average scale scores, and saw improvement in students’ achievement levels.

Connecticut, Indiana, Massachusetts, and Minnesota were among the highest-scoring states in both grades tested.

North Carolina was among the 10 top-performing states, with 232 points on the 500-point scale, and the most improved. Its 4th graders gained 8 points over the 1996 test and a total of 20 points since 1990. Eighth graders in the state made more dramatic gains, scoring an average of 280 points, 12 points higher than in 1996 and 30 points more than their counterparts a decade earlier.

Not surprisingly, 8th graders nationwide whose teachers reported that they are certified in math or have extensive experience teaching the subject tended to perform better on the test, according to results from accompanying student and teacher surveys.

In addition, more time spent in math class translated into higher scores in each of the grades.

“The NAEP shows that teacher preparation matters,” said James M. Rubillo, the executive director of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in Reston, Va.

“It also shows that students who had more mathematics [instruction] performed at a higher level, so we need to make sure students have access to studying the subject throughout their education.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2001 edition of Education Week as Math NAEP Delivers Some Good News

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