NAEP Math Scores Idle at 4th Grade, Advance at 8th

By Sean Cavanagh — October 14, 2009 7 min read
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After marching steadily upward for the past two decades, students’ scores in 4th grade mathematics have stagnated on a prominent nationwide exam. That result seems likely to prompt calls for an inspection of state and federal efforts to boost elementary instruction in the subject.

Scores among 8th graders on the exam, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, continued to rise, meanwhile—a fairly consistent trend since the early 1990s.

Yet the scores on the 4th grade NAEP, a federally administered test touted as “the nation’s report card,” are bound to receive close scrutiny. Federal officials released the results at both grade levels today.

Since 1990, students’ NAEP performance in 4th and 8th grade math has been a story of steady, if slow, progress. Policymakers have been more puzzled and concerned by the leveling-off that occurs among older students, whose scores on a separate NAEP, designed to measure long-term trends, have been nearly unchanged at the high school level since the late 1970s.

NAEP Scores


SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

Today’s NAEP results, however, show that 4th graders’ scores were the same, 240, in 2009 as they were in 2007, on a 500-point scale. By comparison, those scores jumped from 226 to 235 from 2000 to 2003, and rose by at least 2 points in the two testing cycles prior to the current one.

“The failure of our 4th graders to make progress nationally is a cause for concern,” said David P. Driscoll, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, the independent panel that sets policy for NAEP. “With a lack of progress at 4th grade and large achievement gaps that are relatively unchanged, we need to re-examine our efforts to improve student achievement in math.”

At an event where the scores were officially released, Mr. Driscoll said he believes there is a link between flat-line 4th grade scores and shaky math content knowledge among teachers. Mr. Driscoll, a former Massachusetts commissioner of education, backed up his argument by pointing to NAEP data showing that 8th grade students who were taught by teachers with math majors scored better than those who did not.

He noted that Massachusetts has revamped its math testing requirements for teachers seeking certification, having seen large numbers of aspiring educators struggle with that subject.

“Strong content knowledge needs attention,” Mr. Driscoll said. Effective elementary and middle-grades math educators, he added, “provide the building blocks for mathematics.”

Racial Gaps Unchanged

While 4th grade scores among the nation’s white, black, Hispanic, and Asian students all have improved since 1990, they remained flat from 2007 to 2009. The gap separating black and white students’ scores, and that between Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites, also stayed the same—a discrepancy that has not narrowed in recent testing cycles.

“The test-taking population has undergone a major shift over time. From 1990 to 2009, the proportion of participating Hispanic students taking the 4th grade NAEP rose from 6 percent to 21 percent. The proportion of white students fell from 75 percent to 56 percent during that same period. Those percentages, which are similar at the 8th grade level, reflect the racial-ethnic makeup of the U.S. student population at that grade on the whole, federal officials say.”

“A total of about 330,000 4th and 8th graders from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and federal Department of Defense schools took part in the 2009 math test.”

In 8th grade, overall math scores rose from 281 to 283, a statistically significant increase, on a 500-point scale. Since 1990, the nationwide NAEP 8th grade scores have climbed by a combined 20 points.

NAEP reports student performance at three levels of achievement: “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced.” Even though the gap between 8th grade black and Hispanic students and their white counterparts remained unchanged from 2007 to 2009, students at all three achievement levels made progress at that grade level.

In recent years, policymakers and education advocates have seized on rising or falling NAEP scores in math and reading as evidence of the positive or negative effects of the No Child Left Behind Act, the bipartisan federal law signed by President George W. Bush in 2002. That law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, requires schools and districts to test students annually in both subjects in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and make progress or else face penalities.

But many researchers have cautioned against attempts to link NAEP scores to the No Child Left Behind law. Test gains or losses are just as likely to have been influenced by a myriad of state policies—in such areas as standards, curriculum, and professional development—and by differences between NAEP and state exams, they say, as they are by any federal policy. (“NAEP Gains: Experts Mull Significance,” Oct. 3, 2007.)

Policymakers and private organizations have made numerous attempts to improve elementary and middle school math instruction in recent years. President Bush commissioned a group of experts, the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, to study how to prepare students for advanced math, specifically algebra, which more are taking earlier in school. The panel released a report last year that recommended a more focused, streamlined approach to teaching math in the early grades. (“Panel Calls for Systematic, Basic Approach to Math,” March 19, 2008.)

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan voiced concern about the 4th grade results, and said they were evidence of the need to reward teachers who bring about student academic gains, as well as the need for improved data collection and more demanding standards.

“These NAEP results are a call to action to reform the teaching and learning of mathematics and other related subjects in order to prepare our students to compete in the global economy,” he said in a statement.

In addition, the country’s largest organization of math educators, the 100,000-member National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, in 2006 released “Curriculum Focal Points for Prekindergarten Through Grade 8 Mathematics,” a document that calls for a more orderly, logical approach to covering math topics in those grades.

State, D.C. Gains

The 4th and 8th grade NAEP, given every two years and referred to as the “main NAEP,” reports results for the entire nation, as well as for individual states. A separate exam, given every four years and known as the “long-term trend,” reports results for 9-, 13-, and 17-year olds on a nationwide basis. In general, 9- and 13-year-olds’ NAEP math scores have risen since the 1970s, while those of 17-year-olds have stayed mostly flat over that time.

The main NAEP results are typically released at the same time as NAEP reading scores. This year, though, federal officials said that because the framework for the reading test was changed, the results will require additional analysis. Consequently, 4th and 8th grade reading scores aren’t expected to be released until the spring, federal officials told Education Week.

Several individual states saw significant gains or declines in the math scores.

In 4th grade, scores rose in Colorado, the District of Columbia, Kentucky, Maryland, New Hampshire, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Scores fell in Delaware, Indiana, West Virginia, and Wyoming. They remained statistically unchanged elsewhere.

At the 8th grade level, 14 states, plus the District of Columbia, made significantly relevant gains: Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Nevada, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, and Washington. The rest of the states saw no significant changes.

The NAEP scores were released amid a major, state-driven effort to create common, multistate standards and assessments. That undertaking is being led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and 48 states have agreed to take part.

Three of the states making gains—New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont—already have cooperated in a venture to use their own common grade level expectations and assessments, a project known as the New England Common Assessment Program. David Gebhardt, the NAEP state coordinator in New Hampshire, said that the common assessment system was not the only factor behind the gains, though it probably deserves some credit.

“The standards were set quite high—maybe that’s beginning to show some fruit,” Mr. Gebhardt said. New Hampshire officials have also worked hard to make those standards clear and useful to teachers, he added.

As a result, Mr. Gebhardt said, educators “had ownership in them.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2009 edition of Education Week as NAEP Math Scores Idle at 4th Grade, Advance at 8th


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