Assessment

Puerto Rico’s Students Fare Poorly on NAEP Math Tests

By Lynn Olson — March 29, 2007 4 min read
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Long-awaited results on how Puerto Rico’s students fared on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in math are finally in—and they’re not good.

Only 12 percent of public school 4th graders in Puerto Rico and 6 percent of public school 8th graders scored at or above the “basic” level on “the nation’s report card” in 2005. So few students scored at the “proficient” or “advanced” levels that the percentages rounded to zero.

The results for 2003, also released for the first time today, were even worse. That year, only 9 percent of 4th graders and 4 percent of 8th graders scored at the basic level or above.

Read two reports on Puerto Rico’s performance on the 2003 and 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) mathematics assessment.

In comparison, nearly eight in 10 public school 4th graders stateside and nearly seven in 10 public school 8th graders scored at or above basic in 2005. (The national averages for 2003 and 2005 do not include the scores for Puerto Rico, although plans are to include the commonwealth in the national sample from now on.)

“These reports reveal some major challenges for the institution of Puerto Rican education,” said Luis A. Ramos, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, or NAGB, which oversees and sets policy for NAEP.

“It is important to keep in mind that the results we are talking about today represent a starting point to which we can compare future scores in order to measure growth in achievement over time,” he said. “I encourage educators throughout the island to closely examine today’s results and look for areas of both strength and weakness.”

Translation Issues

But Puerto Rican officials urged caution in interpreting the results because of the challenges involved in giving the exams in a language other than English.

The tests given in the U.S. commonwealth broke new ground for NAEP. It is the first time they have been administered in a whole jurisdiction entirely in Spanish for students taught primarily in that language.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires that all states and other jurisdictions receiving Title I money for disadvantaged children, including Puerto Rico, participate in NAEP’s math and reading tests every two years. Because of the difficulty in translating a test of English-reading skills into Spanish, public school students in Puerto Rico only take the math NAEP.

But even in mathematics, translating a test into another language can pose big challenges, as federal officials have found out.

Puerto Rico has about 604,000 public school students, in 1,538 schools. The math NAEP was given to a representative sample of about 3,000 students in 100 schools in each grade each year. Private schools did not participate in the trial NAEP administrations in Puerto Rico.

When officials at the National Center for Education Statistics, the arm of the U.S. Department of Education that administers NAEP, conducted an internal review of the 2003 results for Puerto Rico, they found that students skipped large numbers of test items and answered a far higher percentage of items incorrectly than did students nationally. Other items did not function as expected, meaning there was a mismatch between expected and actual student performance.

Concerns about the quality of the data for Puerto Rico led to a number of changes in the translation procedures for the 2005 test, including in the vocabulary and wording of some questions to reflect the unique linguistic and cultural characteristics of Puerto Rico, where Spanish is the primary language. Officials also gave students more time on the 2005 exam than their counterparts in the 50 states. Because of those changes, NCES officials cautioned that the results should not be compared across the two years.

The need to translate and adapt the tests so that Puerto Rico can participate in NAEP opens a broad discussion about the impact of language and culture on teaching and learning, said Jose A. Rivera, the NAEP coordinator for Puerto Rico’s education department. “The questions range from what are the cultural differences in teaching math to the impact of the language that is used to construct word problems,” he said in a statement.

He also noted that teachers in Puerto Rico use many different math texts, many of them translated into Spanish. If the translations are not uniform, he said, the concepts are probably being taught in different ways, which could further affect the NAEP results.

“In talking with Puerto Rican education experts, I have learned that, for the most part, local assessments are multiple-choice-type exams,” said Mr. Ramos of NAGB. “This complicates matters, since NAEP requires students to respond to multiple-choice items as well as questions requiring them to show their work and explain their answers—skills for which many Puerto Rican children may not be prepared.”

Puerto Rico also faces significant challenges compared with most states. About 99 percent of public school students in Puerto Rico are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunches—a common measure of poverty—a far higher percentage than in the United States as a whole.

Even so, on average, Puerto Rican 4th graders scored 42 points lower than 4th graders from low-income families nationally, while 8th graders there scored 43 points lower than 8th graders from low-income families in the nation on the NAEP tests, which are scored on a 500-point scale.

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