Assessment

Puerto Rico Attains Low NAEP Scores

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — December 10, 2008 3 min read

Students in Puerto Rico’s public schools are faring poorly in mathematics compared with their peers in the 50 states or even large urban districts, according to results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress released today.

Those results from the commonwealth were reported in a complicated format because of concerns about the validity of the scores the 4th and 8th graders received on the 500-point scale normally used in NAEP reports. Instead of scores, or achievement levels such as “basic” or “proficient,” the results are reported as “the overall average of the question scores,” meaning the percentage of correct responses on multiple-choice questions and those requiring short answers, some of which could receive partial credit.

“The reliability of our estimate for the Puerto Rico score was pretty unstable, in that it had a wide margin of error of confidence around the point estimate,” said Peggy Carr, the associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the arm of the U.S. Department of Education that oversees the test. “They were much less reliable in terms of our comfort level with particular estimates, and they were in fact very low.”

Students on the island commonwealth struggled to answer most of the questions on the test. Puerto Rico’s 4th graders received an average 26 percent of possible points, compared with 55 percent for students across the United States. Eighth graders earned an average 25 percent of possible points, compared with 51 percent for students from a representative national sample.

Because of those reporting problems, which Ms. Carr said do not reflect problems with the quality of the assessment, Puerto Rico will not be included in the 2009 math assessment. The NCES will conduct further studies to ensure that future results are reported in a format consistent with those of other tests, she said.

On the math assessment, administered in early 2007, students were tested on number properties and operations, measurement, geometry, data analysis and probability, and algebra. Some 2,800 students at each grade level took the test.

Unique Status

Even relative to some of the nation’s struggling cities, the student population in Puerto Rico is unique among test-takers on the assessment, experts say. All the students in the commonwealth are eligible for the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program. Although Spanish and English are Puerto Rico’s official languages, the former is dominant.

The latest results cannot be compared against those given in Puerto Rico in 2003 or 2005 because of the different method of reporting them. On the 2005 test, whose results were released just last year, 12 percent of 4th graders and 6 percent of 8th graders in Puerto Rico’s public schools scored at or above the “basic” level. So few students scored at the “proficient” or “advanced” level that the percentages rounded to zero.

Those low scores have angered some education officials in Puerto Rico, who argued in a letter to the federal Department of Education last month that the translation of NAEP in math, which has been given to Puerto Rican students in Spanish, as well as cultural differences not taken into account on test items, might be dragging down students’ scores. In the Nov. 12 letter, the commonwealth’s secretary of education, Rafael Aragunde-Torres, asked that U.S. officials allow Puerto Rico to be “permanently exempted” from participating in the test.

But Luis G. Fortuno, the governor-elect, countered in his own letter that the commonwealth should continue taking part. He is expected to appoint a new education secretary after he takes office. (“Puerto Rican Officials Feud Over NAEP Participation,” Nov. 21, 2008.)

Puerto Rican students first took the math NAEP in 2003 and took it again in 2005. It was the first time NAEP had been administered to an entire jurisdiction in Spanish for students taught primarily in that language. Their scores were so low, and there was such a mismatch between expected and actual student performance, that federal officials had difficultly interpreting them, resulting in a delay of the release of test results. (“Puerto Rico Falls ‘Below Basic’ on Math NAEP,” April 4, 2007.)

Assistant Editor Sean Cavanagh contributed to this report.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 07, 2009 edition of Education Week

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