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What the NAEP Data Tell Us About Seniors' Interests and Experiences

The latest NAEP report for 12th graders doesn't just supply scores and achievement levels in reading and math. It also delves into some of the "contextual factors" around achievement—that is, students' opinions and experiences related to learning.

There were questions about whether students liked math and reading, the highest level math course they had taken, and whether they discussed reading interpretations in class.

The results provided recently on PISA, a high-profile global exam, also included some data and analysis on students' "engagement, drive, and self-beliefs."

Many of the data points from the 12th grade NAEP can be filed under the category of "Yeh, big surprise."

For instance, 12th grade students who had taken calculus scored much higher on average on the math test than students who had only taken math up to algebra or geometry. And students who "strongly agree" that math is their favorite subject score higher than those who "strongly disagree."

NAEP 12th graph math level.JPG

In reading, students who say the subject is enjoyable score higher than students who say it is not. Also, students who say they discuss different interpretations of what they've read in class nearly every day have a higher average score than those who say they almost never do that.

OK. Great.

But the findings get a lot more interesting if you look at cross sections by gender, race, and parents' education level (which the NAEP online tool makes it pretty easy to do). Here's what you can find: 

• 36 percent of female students say they discuss interpretations of what they read in class almost daily. Only 30 percent of male students say the same.

What's going on here? These students are not likely taking different classes. So is it just that their perceptions of what happens in class differ or that girls really are doing more interpreting in school than boys? 

• Only 8 percent of female students say they strongly disagree that reading is enjoyable, while 14 percent of boys say the same.

Sure, this seems to confirm the common conception that girls like reading more than boys. But perhaps more importantly, should it be alarming that about one-in-10 12th graders of each gender hate to read? 

• 39 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander students have taken math as high as calculus. Just 20 percent of whites, 12 percent of Hispanics, and 11 percent of blacks have gone that far in math. 

The gaps here are quite large—so are cultural factors driving the discrepancies? 

NAEP race calculus graph fixed.JPG

• A quarter of 12th graders whose parents have graduated from college take calculus. For students whose parents have only a high school diploma, 10 percent have taken the class. Could this be a place for high school guidance counselors to focus? 

As always, it's important to stay true to the data (which is overall quite narrow) and beware of "misNAEPery." For that reason, I don't expect the NAEP data to answer the above questions—rather they're better seen as things to keep in mind for more pointed research.

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