Assessment

NAEP Scores Stall for 12th Graders in Reading, Math

By Liana Loewus — May 13, 2014 5 min read
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Twelfth graders’ math and reading performance has stagnated since 2009, including among individual racial and ethnic groups, according to a new round of results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, prompting renewed concerns about the persistence of achievement gaps.

The testing data from NAEP, known as “the nation’s report card,” show that the average mathematics score for high school seniors remained at 153, on a 300-point scale, when comparing the 2013 results with those from 2009. Just 26 percent of students scored at or above the “proficient” level in math—again the same as four years ago.

In reading, the national average stayed flat at 288, on a 500-point scale, with 37 percent of students scoring at or above proficient, according to the NAEP report issued last week.

Black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native students continued to score well below their white peers in math and reading. The black-white gap is still the largest, with African-American students scoring about 30 points below whites in both subjects, the data show. Since 1992, the black-white score gap has increased by 5 points on the NAEP scale.

At an event in Washington, where the scores were announced, Susan Pimentel, a curriculum specialist and a lead writer for the Common Core State Standards, said it is “unsettling” that that gap in the last 20 years “has gotten wider when we’ve [paid] so much attention to closing the gap.”

In reading, 47 percent of white students scored proficient or above in 2013, compared with 16 percent of black students and 23 percent of Hispanics. And in math, 33 percent of whites scored proficient or above, while only 7 percent of black students and 12 percent of Hispanic students did the same.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan lamented the findings.

“We must reject educational stagnation in our high schools, and as [a] nation, we must do better for all students, especially for African-American and Latino students,” he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, of the 11 states where state-level data were available for 2009 and 2013, only Arkansas and Connecticut had scores that were higher by a statistically significant margin in both subjects this round.

Changes in Test-Takers

Results on NAEP are reported at three achievement levels: “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced.” Proficient, for NAEP purposes, means students “have had success with the challenging content on that grade level,” said Cornelia Orr, the executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, during a May 6 call with reporters.

Putting Seniors' Scores in Historical Context

New National Assessment of Educational Progress data show 12th graders’ scores in reading and math stayed the same compared with 2009. Looking back further, reading achievement is lower than in 1992.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

A nationally representative sample of about 92,000 12th graders took the test between January and March of 2013.

While scores in math and reading remain unchanged compared with 2009, the average for reading has decreased by 4 points since the test’s first administration in 1992. In math, scores have risen by 3 points since 2005, when a new test framework was introduced. Prior math results are not considered valid for comparison.

John Easton, the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers NAEP, said that since 1992, graduation rates have increased from 74 percent to 81 percent of students. For that reason, he said, the recent testing sample “includes more lower-performing students who would have dropped out in the past.”

In addition, the rates of students identified with disabilities and as English-learners have gone up, and exclusion rates for the test have gone down. The percentage of white students has declined from 74 percent to 58 percent, and the Hispanic population has grown from 7 percent to 20 percent. (The population of black students has remained steady.)

But Mr. Easton emphasized, “Our 12th grade population is our 12thgrade population, and we don’t explain away test scores based on demographics.”

Common-Core Alignment

This is the second time NAEP has included grade 12 results from individual states as part of a pilot program. States are required to participate in NAEP for 4th and 8th grades in order to receive federal aid under the No Child Left Behind Act. Starting in 2009, states could volunteer to participate as individual entities—separate from the nationally representative sample—at grade 12.

Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, South Dakota, and West Virginia all participated in 2009 and 2013. This year, Tennessee and Michigan also took part. Of the 11 states that received scores in 2009 as well, four showed improvement in math: Arkansas, Connecticut, Idaho, and West Virginia. Two states—Arkansas and Connecticut—showed improvement in reading over the past four years.

Connecticut had the highest percentage of students score at or above proficient in reading in 2013, with 50 percent. The state was also the only one to narrow the achievement gap between white and black students over the past four years, bringing it down by 9 points. A statement from the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates closing achievement gaps, said, “This is especially encouraging because other data sources have shown that Connecticut has some of the widest achievement gaps in the nation.”

Massachusetts had the highest percentage of those at or above proficient in math, with 34 percent.

With two state consortia’s tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards slated to debut next year, many people wonder if NAEP offers clues as to how high school students will perform. Ms. Orr of NAGB, which sets policy for NAEP, called that “the million-dollar question.”

“How will [the testing consortia] report scores out in terms of scales and proficiency levels, and how will those align with the NAEP scores in terms of proficiency levels—all of that is yet unknown,” she said. Even so, an initial review found that the NAEP items are “quite closely aligned with the common-core content.”

On May 14, NAGB planned to issue its first report on what NAEP data can say about student preparedness for endeavors beyond 12th grade.

A version of this article appeared in the May 14, 2014 edition of Education Week as At Grade 12, NAEP Achievement Stalls in Reading, Mathematics


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