Assessment

South Posts Big Gains on Long-Term NAEP in Reading and Math

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo & Sean Cavanagh — July 26, 2005 5 min read

A generation of reform measures in the Southeastern states appears to be paying off in higher student achievement, as measured by “the nation’s report card.”

Nine- and 13-year-olds from that region, in fact, posted the highest gains in both reading and mathematics on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress long-term-trend tests.

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Chart: Rising in the South

The showing out of the Southeast likely played a large role in the overall headway of the nation’s 9-year-olds, who turned in their highest scores ever in the three-decade history of the tests.

Whether the gains can be linked to implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act is questionable, despite U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ contention that the results are “proof that No Child Left Behind is working.”

Although the NAEP results were released this month, the elementary and middle school students took the tests barely two years after the law was passed.

The National Center for Education Statistics provides more information on “NAEP 2004 Long-Term Trend Assessments.”

Other federal officials and experts cautioned that there is no evidence that the progress is linked to the NCLB legislation, which President Bush signed into law in January 2002.

Many states had already begun setting up standards and accountability systems and focusing intensely on reading and mathematics instruction before the passage of the federal law, noted Darvin M. Winick, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP.

States in the Southeast have put a raft of policies in place to upgrade education there over the past two decades.

North Carolina, for example, rolled out its accountability program, long viewed as a national model, in 1996. The state has been among those whose performance has improved the most on the national assessment since that time. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and other Southern states have also been praised for their improvement efforts.

“It may not be that the South carried the nation, but it seems to me that maybe a majority of the national increase is attributable to the increase in the South,” said Mark D. Musick, the president of the Southern Regional Education Board until the end of this month, and a former NAGB chairman. “Part of our progress is because we were behind, but this emphasis on reading … that a lot of our states have adopted is paying off.”

Reading scores for 9-year-olds in the South rose 13 points between 1999 and 2004, to 218, a point below the national average. In math, they shot up 31 points, to 240, about the national average. Middle school students from the Southeast also made the greatest leaps in test scores on both tests nationally, scoring 257 points in reading, a 3-point gain over 1999, and 278 points in math, an 8-point improvement over the previous test. When the tests were first given in the early 1970s, those states were the lowest performers, with scores well below the national average.

States in the West also registered gains on the 2004 NAEP, while the average performance of all students in the Northeast and Central regions has remained relatively flat over the life of the reading test, with only modest improvements in math.

Gaps Narrowing

Since the early ’70s, younger students have made greater strides on the math portion of the NAEP trend test than have teenagers, whose scores have remained relatively stagnant.

That trend continued in 2004, though this time, the improvement among the youngest age group, 9-year-olds, was particularly dramatic. Their overall math scores jumped from 232 to 241 on a 500-point scale—the largest single gain since 1973, when the long-term NAEP was first administered in that subject. Average math scores among 13-year-olds rose from 276 to 281—also the largest single increase on record.

Black and Hispanic 9- and 13-year-olds also made their greatest-ever gains on the long-term NAEP in math, and reached their highest scores since the test’s inception. The gaps between both black and Hispanic elementary pupils and their white peers in math also reached their narrowest mark ever—23 points and 18 points, respectively—even as the overall math scores of white children in those age groups rose, too.

“There’s no question, those are outstanding results,” said Tom Loveless, the director of the Brown Center at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

According to a description of the math skills measured on NAEP, the 17-year-old students tested had a relatively strong grasp of moderately complex math procedures and reasoning, covering lessons such as decimals, simple fractions, and simple inequalities.

But those teenagers, on average, fell well short of a 350 score, the benchmark that demonstrates a grasp of multistep problem-solving and algebra, and mastery of such topics as functions, linear equations, variables, and inequalities, according to federal officials.

Cathy L. Seeley, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, was not surprised by those shortcomings. In many classrooms, there continues to be too much emphasis on “spoon-feeding” answers to students, she said, rather than having teachers walk them through complex problems, step by step, so that students gain a broader understanding of math concepts.

Demonstrating Proficiency

In reading, 9-year-olds scored an average of 219, up from 212 in 1999 and 208 in 1971. The performance of older students has changed little in more than three decades. The average score for 13-year-olds was 259 last year, just 4 points more than in 1971. The average score for 17-year-olds—285 points—was the same as in 1971.

For this latest test, more of the nation’s younger students demonstrated greater proficiency in reading than in the past. Twenty percent of 9-year-olds scored 250 or higher, a level showing that they could make inferences and generalizations about the texts they read. In 1999, just 16 percent could do so. About 60 percent of middle schoolers scored 300 or better, demonstrating understanding of complicated information.

Some 80 percent of high school students reached that level, but just four in 10 could understand the ideas presented in specialized texts, such as scientific materials, literary essays, and historical documents.

Beyond 4th Grade

“The results suggest that when we concentrate our efforts and money to both professional development and more intensive expert instruction for kids who need it, we can gradually make progress toward narrowing the achievement gap and enhancing achievement overall,” said Richard A. Allington, the president of the International Reading Association, based in Newark, Del.

Mr. Allington lamented, however, that while considerable attention has been paid to reading in the early grades, the focus on reading instruction beyond 4th grade has been inadequate.

Federal officials expressed concern over the flagging participation in NAEP among 17-year-olds. A combined 56 percent of the high school students and schools that were asked to participate took part in NAEP, the lowest level ever. If participation continues to fall, the test results could become statistically invalid.

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