Authors of a new report on National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores that compares scores both on a state-by-state basis and between the U.S. and other nations say that Maryland has shown the greatest improvement in scores between 1992 and 2011, while southern states have also made a strong showing. In comparison to achievement gains by other countries like Brazil and Germany, however, the U.S. seems to be mediocre and barely keeping up, according to the study.
The report was written by Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann, professors at Stanford, Harvard and the University of Munich, respectively, and was released under the auspices of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard. There's also an article in the journal Education Next's fall edition about the study by its three authors.
Given NAEP's "gold standard" status for measuring achievement in the education community, it's not surprising that there are various definitions of what the scores mean. For example, those suspicious of calls to significantly overhaul the American K-12 education system point out that over the last three decades, scores on the NAEP have risen across the board for various student demographics, belying lamentations about U.S. students' performance. Although the authors acknowledge these gains in the report, what's important to them is the rate of NAEP improvement. (Just to clarify, the authors used other international tests like PISA in order to compare achievement gains between nations.)
In terms of state-by-performance, in the two decades considered by the study, Maryland did best among the 41 states considered in the study when it came to score gains. Its students' NAEP scores in math, science, and reading improved by more than two years' worth of learning from 1992 to 2011. (The details: a standard deviation of 25 percent is equivalent to one year's worth of learning, and Maryland improved by 3.3 percent of a standard deviation annually on average, the study shows.) Florida came in next, followed by Delaware and Massachusetts.
The authors note that five of the top 10 states in NAEP improvement were in the South (including Louisiana, Virginia, Arkansas, and South Carolina), and none of the southern states were among the 18 slowest-improving states. The authors note approvingly that in these and other states like Texas and North Carolina, governors "provided much of the national leadership for the school accountability effort, as there was a widespread sentiment in the wake of the civil rights movement that steps had to be taken to equalize educational opportunity across racial groups."
At the same time, by the authors' calculations, Iowa showed the least NAEP improvement, with Maine, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Nebraska rounding out the bottom five. Noting the presence of several midwestern states at the bottom of the list, the authors argue that in contrast with southern states, many of the heartland states may be resting on "past accomplishments" and not on board with recent reforms. (Tennessee's gains represented close to the average gains for states.) Hanushek, Peterson, and Woessmann also report that the "catch-up" explanation, the phenomenon that low-performing states improved more over time simply because they have more room to do so, explains about a quarter of the results.