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How States Present—and Spin—NAEP Scores for the Public

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The big news of Nov. 7 was the release of scores in reading and math for 4th and 8th graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the "Nation's Report Card". In addition to the nation's performance overall, the results were broken down for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. As some of my Education Week colleagues have pointed out, Tennessee and the District have been lauded by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and others for their particularly strong performance on the NAEP. 

But what about other states? How does states' rhetoric about their students' performance compare with their actual performance and their score gains (or lack thereof?) Let's look at a few examples.

California: In a Nov. 7 statement about the NAEP results, California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson announced that the state's students made "major gains" on the assessments. He highlighted California's 8th graders, who he said made the biggest score gains on the reading exam in the country from 2011 to 2013. And state Board of Education Chairman Michael W. Kirst also chimed in, saying the state's scores "climbed in nearly all the tested areas" in addition to that 8th grade reading exam.

Torlakson's right when he says that California's 8th graders improved the most on the reading test—their performance improved by 7 points, from 255 to 262. (NAEP tests are on a scale score of 500.) But that's the only "major gain" to speak of for California. Although 4th graders improved in reading by 1 point (up to 213) and 8th graders did so in math by 3 points (up to 276), neither of those score gains were deemed statistically significant according to the NAEP's standards. That may be due to sample size and the characteristics of the students being tested, among other factors. And in 4th-grade math, California's score declined by 1 point to 234, although that decrease also wasn't deemed statistically significant. 

The department does mention specific score changes in the latter half of its press release, but doesn't point out that aside from the 8th-grade reading tests, those changes aren't statistically significant.

So Torlakson wasn't wholly inaccurate when he trumpeted "major gains." But he didn't explain what that meant, and didn't mention that only on one test did California students make a major gain.

Texas: In a press release, the state education agency reported that Texas' 4th and 8th graders beat the national average on the math exams. This is true, although 4th graders beat the national average of 241 by only a point, while 8th graders beat the national average by 4 points. 

What the release doesn't mention is any improvement. That's because overall, there wasn't any in Texas. Or at least there wasn't any statistically significant improvement among any of the four tests in question from 2011 to 2013. Texas 4th graders in reading and 8th graders in math actually declined by 1 and 2 points, respectively—however, neither of these declines were deemed statistically significant. The Texas agency also focuses in great detail on how several racial groups of students in the state performed better than their counterparts nationwide. (Kentucky took a similar approach—its state education department highlighted where its students beat the national average, but none of its scores declined or improved in a statistically significant way. Kentucky did provide charts with exact scores in its press release.)

Massachusetts: This state has been a longtime NAEP powerhouse. It made news Thursday because its 4th graders' performance on the reading exam dipped by 4 points, down to 232. That tied for the  largest statistically significant score dip on any one test—Montana and Oklahoma also had 4-point declines in on 8th-grade math. The rest of Massachusetts' score changes weren't statistically insignificant.

What does the state education department say? It highlights the fact that Massachusetts students "lead the nation in reading and mathematics performance for the fifth consecutive time." Now, further down in that press release, Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester does mention that the 4th-grade reading score is "a cause for concern." Chester says the state is upgrading its curriculum, and also mentions that the state is "fully implementing" the Common Core State Standards in schools this year. 

Only one state, Montana, saw statistically significant score declines on two of the four exams, in 4th grade reading (down 2 points to 223) and 8th grade math (down 4 points to 289). I haven't seen any official statement from thet state's Office of Public Instruction on Montana's scores, but will update this post if I do.

Photo: Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam compliments a group of 6th graders on Thursday at John P. Freeman Optional School in Memphis, Tenn., after Tennessee scored high on National Assessment of Educational Progress Tests. The students were at work learning about electrical current. (Kyle Kurlick/The Commercial Appeal/AP)

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