States Committed to Standards Reforms Reap NAEP Gains

By David J. Hoff & Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — March 10, 1999 7 min read
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New results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress suggest that the nearly decade-long push to reform schools through higher academic standards--and the tests tied to them--may be working.

States deeply involved in the so-called systemic-reform model that has gathered momentum during the 1990s showed consistent and large gains from 1992 to 1998 on NAEP’s 4th grade reading exam, according to state-by-state data released by the Department of Education last week. The national average remained about the same.

Colorado, Connecticut, and Kentucky, all of which have built reforms around standards and assessments, were the only states to post statistically significant gains over their scores in both 1992 and 1994--the only two earlier times the current version of the NAEP reading test has been given. Others making progress since 1994 include Maryland, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington.

For More Information:

Single copies of “The 1998 NAEP Reading Report Card for the Nation and the States” are available free by calling (877 4ED-PUBS. The report is also available on the World Wide Web at

“States that have taken the lead at standards-based reform are getting good results,” Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said at a news conference here where the results were unveiled.

But others suggest that Mr. Riley and other advocates of standards-based education may be jumping to conclusions.

“Even under the most ambitious circumstances, most of the reforms taking place weren’t even implemented until last year or this year,” said Jeff McQuillan, an assistant professor of education at California State University-Fullerton and the author of The Literacy Crisis: False Claims, Real Solutions. “These scores are more affected by demographic shifts than curricular shifts.”

California, for example, showed slight improvement from 1994, but not enough to be considered statistically significant. The state scored a 202 on the national assessment’s 500-point scale--rebounding to its 1992 level after a 5-point drop in 1994--placing it above only Hawaii, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Pascal D. Forgione Jr., the federal commissioner of education statistics, presents highlights from the latest national reading assessment. Most states rebounded from losses suffered in 1994.
--Benjamin Tice Smith

On NAEP achievement levels, the Golden State eclipsed Mississippi and Louisiana as well, but 80 percent of California’s students still ranked in the two lowest two categories: “basic” and “below basic.”

“We have not yet gotten the system in place,” said Marion Joseph, a member of the California state school board. She has been instrumental in the state’s abandonment of its literature-based language arts framework in favor of phonics-based reading initiatives. “We are moving in the right direction ... but we didn’t get where we wanted to be until just now.”

On the Rebound?

The state-by-state results echo the trends in the overall national tests, which the Education Department distributed last month. The composite scores, drawn from exams given to 31,000 students in 1,400 public and private schools, showed that 4th and 12th graders’ reading scores rose from 1994, but only recovered what was lost between 1992 and 1994. Eighth grade scores remained flat from 1992 to 1994, and jumped in 1998. (“U.S. Students Bounce Back in Reading,” Feb. 17, 1999.)

Pascal D. Forgione Jr., the federal commissioner of education statistics, delayed the release of state-by-state results for three weeks after NAEP contractors discovered a flaw in the first statistical analysis of the state data. The federally sponsored NAEP is administered periodically to representative samples of public and private school students in core subjects.

Like the national figures, most state scores dipped between 1992 and 1994 and recovered last year. Only five states--Colorado, Connecticut, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina--have made statistically significant gains since 1992, but a total of nine significantly raised their 1994 scores.

Texas showed a 5-point improvement since 1992, but experts said the gain was insufficient to be considered statistically significant, based on a formula that compared multiple factors.

Utah, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia are the only jurisdictions where scores fell significantly between 1992 and 1998. No state or territory dropped between 1994 and 1998.

Conn. 8th Graders Tops, Too

AEP collected state-by-state data for 8th graders for the first time in 1998. Connecticut, Maine, and Oklahoma all scored in the top tier of states in both the 4th and 8th grades. Oregon, Utah, Virginia, and Washington state, while near the national average for 4th grade, ranked in the group above the national average in 8th grade.

Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New York, and Wisconsin also reached the top grouping on the 8th grade exam, but they were among eight states that didn’t test enough students to provide a sample large enough to ensure statistical accuracy, according to the final version of “NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card for the Nation and the States.”

Thirty-nine states, the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands, and the Department of Defense Dependents Schools participated in the 4th grade test. Thirty-eight states and the same number of jurisdictions provided students for the sample on the 8th grade exam, but eight of them failed to include enough students to yield accurate data.

In addition, about half the states did not provide enough private school students in the sample, meaning all the data the National Center for Education Statistics released last week were based on public school student achievement.

States and territories needed at least 2,500 students from 100 schools in their representative samples to meet NAEP guidelines for accuracy. The exams included multiple-choice, extended-response, and essay questions.

Which Method Works?

Though experts stress that the national assessment was not intended to gauge the effectiveness of any particular method of reading instruction, the scores have been used over the years to support or criticize a prevailing pedagogical philosophy.

California’s last-place ranking, along with Louisiana, among states on the 1994 NAEP reading test set off alarm bells among lawmakers there, who blamed the state’s poor performance on its language arts framework. The release of those scores marked the beginning of an aggressive back-to-basics push for the state, which led to the development of standards and the selection of textbooks with strong phonics components. Other states followed suit in crafting legislation or reading initiatives that prescribe phonics-based teaching methods. Phonics instruction emphasizes the sounding out of letters and words and relies heavily on repetition and drills.

Supporters of California’s most recent reforms--which have pumped more than $250 million into professional development and curriculum materials--expect to see more significant improvement once the standards and frameworks the state board adopted last fall are in place.

But some who are critical of California’s shift toward teaching more basic skills in the early grades said the state’s slight movement upward on the latest national assessment suggests that previous reforms may have started to have an effect.

“The NAEP test tends to measure much more in the area of comprehension and application, and much of the recent reform buzz in California has been around word recognition [skills], which are not tapped by the NAEP,” said Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the Newark, Del.-based International Reading Association. The IRA believes that many states, including California, are now focusing too much on phonics to the detriment of comprehension and fostering students’ interest in reading.

“The [skills-based] reforms in California are pretty new, so any improvements on the NAEP are based on the literature-based framework"--using the “whole language” approach--that was previously in place, Mr. Farstrup asserted.

But Ms. Joseph charged that such an appraisal was without merit and that, no matter how anyone interpreted the results, the reading achievement of California’s students is still among the worst in the nation.

“You cannot say that what we were doing was OK,” Ms. Joseph said. “Clearly, our test scores are not satisfying to California. We owe our kids a lot better.”

While California struggles to climb out of the cellar, Connecticut leaped ahead of the pack.

The state’s 4th grade scores on the 500-point scale rose 10 points from 1994 to 1998, to reach 232. Montana and New Hampshire, which tied for second place, fell 6 points behind.

On NAEP’s achievement levels, 46 percent of Connecticut 4th graders rated “proficient” or “advanced"--the highest of the four rankings. In a tie for second, 37 percent of Massachusetts and Montana 4th graders reached those levels.

Maine managed to match Connecticut’s 8th grade scores. On the scale score, Maine scored 273, 1 point above Connecticut. In both states, 42 percent of 8th graders reached the proficient or advanced level.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 10, 1999 edition of Education Week as States Committed to Standards Reforms Reap NAEP Gains


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