NAEP Reading and Math Scores Rise

By Sean Cavanagh & Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — September 25, 2007 8 min read
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Test scores among 4th and 8th graders across the United States rose in both reading and mathematics on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, gains that occurred amid intensifying debate on Capitol Hill about the effectiveness of ongoing federal efforts to raise achievement in those subjects.

Fourth grade math scores on NAEP, called “the nation’s report card,” rose from 238 to 240 from 2005 to 2007, while 8th grade performance climbed from 279 to 281, both on a 500-point scale. The 2007 NAEP results were released today.

Those gains continued an overall upward trend in NAEP math scores in both grades that dates to the early 1990s, while reading scores have been more stagnant over that time. While the gains in math were smaller than in some previous testing cycles, they were still statistically significant, as were the increases in reading.

“It shows that the public attention to math instruction and professional development of teachers is having a positive impact,” said James Rubillo, the executive director of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, in Reston, Va. The movement for stronger standards that dates to the 1980s “has brought math and reading to the forefront of attention,” he said.

In reading, the subject that has seen the greatest investment of federal and state education spending over the past several years, 4th graders’ scores have risen from 219 to 221, also on a 500-point scale, since 2005. Eighth graders’ average mark increased from 262 to 263, which was a statistically significant gain, though that test score dipped slightly from the NAEP reading test given five years ago.

While those gains might be slower than hoped for, “it’s pretty clear that when we put resources someplace, we get results,” said Richard Long, the director of government relations for the Newark, Del.-based International Reading Association. “We’ve been putting resources in the early grades, and now we need to put resources in the middle schools and high schools.”

The latest results emerge as Congress considers various ideas for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires schools to test students annually in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, as she has in the past, drew a connection between NAEP gains in reading and math and NCLB requirements that schools make adequate yearly progress in those subjects. Federal lawmakers are hearing from critics of the law who say that it has reduced teaching in other areas, and from those who want schools to be allowed to be judged by other measures than simply reading and math test scores.

But the secretary said the new NAEP results show that changing the current focus of the law would be a step backward.

“No Child Left Behind is working,” Ms. Spellings said in a statement. “It’s doable, reasonable, and necessary. Any efforts to weaken accountability would fly in the face of rising achievement. … To those who would suggest that [the law] is not working, our nation’s 4th and 8th graders just proved the naysayers wrong.”

The improvements in reading and math came despite a steady demographic shift in the NAEP test-taking population since the early 1990s, noted David W. Gordon, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP. For instance, Hispanic students’ share of the pupils taking the 4th grade math exam rose from 6 percent in 1990 to 20 percent today, with similar growth among those tested in reading. The percentage of students eligible for free lunches also rose at both grade levels and in both subjects.

Mr. Gordon, speaking at a Sept. 25 event outlining the NAEP results, suggested that improvements in reading and math scores were not so much the result of any single academic program or curricular approach used in states or schools. The gains were more a matter of states’ and districts’ commitment to a consistent academic-improvement strategy over time, said Mr. Gordon, who is the superintendent of the Sacramento County, Calif., office of education.

Successful education leaders “have in place a solid curriculum,” he said, and they “stick to an instructional approach and focus a lot of energy and get teachers to teach better.”

Because states design their own reading and math tests, and set their own thresholds for whether students are deemed “proficient” in those subjects under the No Child Left Behind law, the NAEP results are heavily scrutinized by elected officials, researchers, and others who see the national assessment, which is given to a sampling of students, as a more uniform measuring stick of achievement. Students’ scores on NAEP are grouped into three categories: “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced,” though a percentage of students with the lowest test scores are considered to be “below basic.”

A total of about 700,000 students across the country participated in the reading and math NAEP exams, which were given from January through March. The new test results show not only nationwide trends in reading and math, but also state-by-state scores in both subjects.

In math, a number of states saw significant test-score gains in both the 4th and 8th grades, including Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, and New Jersey. Overall, 22 states and the District of Columbia saw higher 4th grade scores in math than they did in 2005. Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia saw increases at the 8th grade level.

Math and science education advocates have worried in recent years about whether high-achieving students are being sufficiently challenged in those subjects. NAEP gains in science, for instance, have been greatest among relatively low-achieving students. (“NAEP Scores Show Few Budding Scientists,” June 7, 2006.)

But the recent NAEP showed students at all three achievement levels in 4th grade and 8th grade math—from basic to advanced—making statistically significant gains.

In reading, on the other hand, students scoring at the lower percentiles showed the greatest improvement in general.

At the 4th grade level, students in the bottom 10th percentile improved their average score to 174, a 3-point improvement over the 2005 results, while students in the top percentile rose only a point, from 263 to 264.

Minority Students’ Scores Up

Students on the math NAEP were tested in a variety of different content areas, including algebra, geometry, measurement, and data analysis. A student at the 8th grade level, for instance, would reach the proficient level if he or she could convert a temperature from Fahrenheit to Celsius, use a formula to solve a problem, or choose the right equation related to sales and profit.

In reading, students were asked to perform a variety of reading-comprehension tasks designed to gauge their literary experience, ability to gain information from text, and skill in performing reading tasks. Fourth graders, for example, were tested on their skill in recognizing facts, understanding vocabulary, and providing an opinion based on text passages on the test.

Among 4th graders, one-fourth were deemed proficient in reading, while another 8 percent reached the advanced level on the assessment, which is considered a rigorous test of reading comprehension. One-third performed at the basic level, leaving a full third of students in the below-basic category.

White 4th graders gained 2 points over the 2005 reading test, scoring an average 231 points, while the scores of their black peers increased 3 points, to an average 203, narrowing the gap between the two groups by 1 point. The performance of Native American students was equal to that of their African-American peers, but unchanged since 2005. Hispanic students scored 205 points on average, a 2-point increase over the most recent test, and Asian students improved by 2 points, to 232.

Eighth graders scored an average 263 points in reading, a 1-point increase over 2005, which is considered statistically significant, but the same as in 1998. Students in the bottom 10th and 25th percentiles were the most improved, increasing their score by 1 or 2 points since 2005.

The proportion of 8th graders scoring at the proficient level or better remained at 34 percent. Nearly three-fourths of the test-takers scored at least at the basic level.

White students’ scores have improved by 1 point since 2005, to 272 points, the same level they had in 2002 and 2003. Black students saw a 2-point improvement, to 245, over the past two years. Hispanic, Asian, and Native American students maintained statistically the same marks as in 2005, scoring 247, 271, and 247, respectively.

In math, the score gap between both blacks and Hispanics and their white classmates remained roughly the same, though all three groups in the 4th grade and 8th grades improved their scores in that subject from 2005 to 2007.

Just three states—Florida, Hawaii, and Maryland—and the District of Columbia saw gains at both the 4th and 8th grade levels in reading. Since 2005, the scores for 4th graders have improved in 18 states. The scores of 8th graders have increased in six states.

Massachusetts and New Jersey scored highest among the states on the 4th grade reading test, with an average 236 and 231 points, respectively. Moreover, 28 percent and 26 percent of their test-takers, respectively, reached the proficient level or better. Among the older students, Massachusetts, Montana, Vermont, and the Department of Defense Schools scored highest, at 271 points or better, and saw nearly four in 10 of their 8th graders reach at least the proficient level.

Mr. Rubillo, of the math teachers’ council, which has 100,000 members, said gauging No Child Left Behind’s impact on rising test scores in mathematics was difficult. Efforts to improve standards in that subject, he pointed out, began well before President Bush signed the NCLB legislation into law in January 2002.

But the law’s requirements for reporting student academic progress broken down by different demographic groups “draws attention to all [segments] of our changing population,” Mr. Rubillo said. “Without that, we could hide those results for those students.”

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