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The NAEP Results: Time for a Long Perspective

Last week's news regarding disappointing results on the most recent administration of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) certainly made some waves. Scores decreased for both assessed grade levels in math, decreased for 8th graders in reading, and were flat in 4th grade reading. This marks the first time in 25 years that math scores have declined.

The decline has been blamed on immigration, the family economic stress brought on by the Great Recession, implementation of the Common Core State Standards, failure to implement the Common Core State Standards, tough-minded teacher accountability and the Supermoon.  We will never know whether it is due to any of these things, a combination of these things or none of these things, because we have no evidence and never will to adjudicate such claims. 

But the most important thing to know about the fall in NAEP scores is that it is the wrong thing to focus on.  What you should be focusing on is the lack of change in NAEP scores over time.  Take a look at the table below of historical NAEP scores at the high school level since the survey was started four decades ago.  We chose the historical scores because the prompts have been the same over the whole period.  You can be certain that you are comparing apples to apples.  We want you to focus on the high school level because what really matters is the skills that our students leave high school with as they go on to further education or enter the work force.

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My colleague David R. Mandel points out that average reading scores at the high school level have been flat since 1971.  The proportion of students at or above the "proficient" mark was 39 percent in 1971 and 39 percent in 2012, the last time NAEP reported on the historical series.  There was a bump up in these averages in 1992, but the air went out of the bump after that.  If you look inside these numbers, you will see that the White/Black gap went from 53 points in 1971 to 20 in 1990, staying fairly constant since then. 

The average historical NAEP high school scores for mathematics follow much the same pattern: 304 points in 1973 (the first year NAEP assessed math at the high school level) and 306 in 2012 (the last time historical NAEP was given at the high school level).  The last statistically significant change in these scores occurred in 1986.  The story for differences in performance between White and Black students is very like the story for reading.  The gap declined from 40 points in 1973 down to 21 points in 1990, and has been stable since a rise to 26 in 1992.  Roughly the same trajectory has been followed by the White/Hispanic gap.

The average reading scores are still not up to the level they attained before NCLB was passed.  The average mathematics scores are about the same.  NCLB has contributed not at all to closing the gaps in performance between White and minority students.  The data simply do not support the claim that No Child Left Behind and its descendants improve outcomes for our students.  

Some of you will be quick to point out that, while the NAEP data are disappointing at the high school level, more progress was made at the 4th and 8th grade levels.  As my colleague Brendan Williams-Kief points out, however, even if we stayed on the same heading and speed that we were on during the period from 2003 to 2013 at those levels, before this year's dip downward, we would have to wait until the year 2105 for 80 percent of our 4th graders to be at or above proficient in mathematics, the year 2147 for 8th grade mathematics, the year 2191 for 4th grade reading, and the year 2173 for 8th grade reading.

The average student in many of the top-performing countries graduates two to three years ahead of the average high school graduate in the United States.  The distance between what our high school graduates know and can do and what their high school graduates know and can do has been steadily widening in recent years.

The problem with the NAEP scores is not that they just slipped a bit.  It is that those scores are pretty much the same at the high school level as they were 40 years ago.  During those 40 years, one nation after another has surpassed our performance.  That is the disaster on which we should be focusing.  What it says is that there is something deeply wrong with our whole system of education and it has got to get fixed.

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