NAEP Scores Put Spotlight on Standards

By Sean Cavanagh — October 19, 2009 8 min read
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Fourth grade math scores stagnated for the first time in two decades on a prominent nationwide test, prompting calls for new efforts to improve teacher content knowledge and stirring discussion of the potential benefits of setting more-uniform academic standards across states.

The results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, released last week, marked the first time since 1990 that math scores at the elementary school level did not rise.

Scores among 8th graders on NAEP, sometimes referred to as “the nation’s report card,” continued to climb, as they have consistently over the past 20 years.

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 high school students, whose scores on a separate NAEP, designed to measure long-term trends, have been nearly unchanged since the late 1970s.

Results of the National Assessment


SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

Yet the latest results 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.

At an event where the scores were officially released, David Driscoll, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, drew a connection between the 4th grade scores and many elementary teachers’ shaky knowledge of math content. Mr. Driscoll, a former Massachusetts commissioner of education, backed up his argument by pointing to NAEP data showing that 8th graders taught by teachers with undergraduate math majors scored 9 points better on average than those who were not.

He noted that Massachusetts has revamped its testing requirements for teachers seeking certification to mandate that they receive a separate passing score in math, as opposed to simply achieving an overall passing score across subjects.

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

To date, no state other than Massachusetts requires teachers to pass a separate math subtest as part of its licensure exam, said Julie Greenberg of the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality, which advocates improved preparation of educators. Many prospective teachers benefit from receiving an overall score, and a boost from subjects other than math, Ms. Greenberg said in an e-mail. If required to pass a separate math section, she said, many would likely fail—which occurred in Massachusetts, Mr. Driscoll noted, as the state phased in its math requirements.

New England Impresses

A few states defied nationwide trends and progressed in both 4th and 8th grades. Three of those states, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont, drew particular attention because they have participated in a joint venture to establish common standards and assessments, known as the New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAP.

Some speculated that those states’ shared academic goals and exams—and their accompanying push to link instruction and teacher training to those standards—factored in the NAEP gains. Meanwhile, a broader, multistate effort to establish common standards is being undertaken by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. (“Revised Draft of ‘Common Core’ Standards Unveiled,” Sept. 21, 2009.)

“We think it played a key role,”

Deborah A. Gist, Rhode Island’s commissioner of education, said of NECAP. “We believe in the quality of our test. ... It results in a richer system overall.”

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 gaps separating white students’ scores, and those of blacks and Hispanics, also stayed the same—a chasm 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 Hispanic students taking the 4th grade NAEP rose from 6 percent to 21 percent, while the percentage of white students fell from 75 percent to 56 percent. Those percentages, which are similar at the 8th grade level, reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the U.S. student population at that grade on the whole, federal officials say.

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 main levels of achievement: “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced,” and another separate category, “below basic.” 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 face penalties.

Others have cautioned against drawing such connections, saying NAEP results are influenced as much, or more, by a myriad of state policies for standards, curriculum, and professional development—and by differences in the content of NAEP and state exams. (“NAEP Gains: Experts Mull Significance,” Oct. 3, 2007.)

Extra Attention

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the flat 4th grade scores show the need to reward teachers who bring about student academic gains, improve data collection on achievement, and set higher academic standards.

The 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.

Improving elementary and middle school math performance has received considerable attention in recent years. In 2006, the 100,000-member National Council of Teachers of Mathematics released “Curriculum Focal Points for Prekindergarten Through Grade 8 Mathematics,” a document that advocates a more orderly, logical approach to covering math topics in those grades. And last year, the White House-commissioned National Mathematics Advisory Panel released a report that also recommends more focused, streamlined instruction.

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 countrywide scores for 9-, 13-, and 17-year olds. 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 math results are typically released with reading scores. But federal officials said they would not be able to issue the reading scores until the spring, because changes to the reading framework, or testing blueprint, require the results to be given additional analysis.

In addition to the three New England states using the NECAP system, several others saw significant gains or declines in the math scores. In 4th grade, scores also rose in Colorado, the District of Columbia, Kentucky, Maryland, and Nevada. Scores fell in Delaware, Indiana, West Virginia, and Wyoming. They remained statistically unchanged elsewhere.At the 8th grade level, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Nevada, South Dakota, Utah, and Washington made statistically significant gains. The rest of the states saw no significant changes.

Classroom Standards

Forty-eight states are taking part in the project to establish more uniform standards and assessments, known as the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The ccsso and nga have so far released drafts of academic standards for college and career preparation; K-12 standards are expected to come later.

The stagnant 4th grade scores—when contrasted with the New England states’ progress—offer evidence in favor of setting more uniform standards across states, argued Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a Washington-based organization that is a partner in the “Common Core” effort.

“We know the NECAP standards are rigorous and the assessments are rigorous,” Mr. Cohen said. “It’s hard to believe that doesn’t have a connection to the gains they’re making.”

New Hampshire and Vermont officials, in interviews, said the involvement of teachers in crafting the NECAP standards—known as “grade-level expectations”—and assessments, first implemented in 2005, is an important element of the system. “They had ownership in them,” said David Gebhardt, New Hampshire’s NAEP coordinator.

Susan Hayes, Vermont’s state NAEP coordinator, said she believes the NECAP test, which emphasizes constructed-response questions and problem-solving, is well-aligned with NAEP, which could have helped the state’s performance. Vermont officials were pleased with the NAEP gains, though troubled with the relatively poor performance of disadvantaged students—an area in which the state needs to “get traction,” she said.

Teachers in Vermont were asked to help review and refine NECAP test items, said Michael L. Hock, the state director of educational assessment. Vermont officials also stage “data retreats” to help district officials use the tests to improve instruction, and the state sponsors workshops in content areas covered in the NECAP.

Overall, Vermont has saved money on testing through the multistate exam, though including a lot of constructed-response items is expensive, Mr. Hock conceded. Those complex questions give the tests more meaning and value in the classroom, he argued.

“Standards are the vehicle for all of this, but just having standards doesn’t do it,” Mr. Hock said. “We don’t seem to have, in our state, the out-and-out disdain you see for testing in other states. We involve teachers. ... We try to present the notion that this is trying to help kids, not punish teachers.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2009 edition of Education Week as NAEP Scores Put Spotlight on Standards


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