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Behind the NAEP Results

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The latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), released this week, showed that twelfth graders did not improve their performance at all in reading or mathematics since 2009. This finding is consistent with that of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), released last December, and it has occasioned some concern about why high school students' performance seems so stagnant. Lest I be accused of "misnaepery," I won't venture any speculation about what these results "prove."

Beyond the trends over time, NAEP also provides a lot of information on what students know and can do. And the results here also cause concern. Too few students--months away from higher education or the workplace--can demonstrate the abilities they will need to succeed after high school.

On the reading test, for example, most students did well on questions that involved literal interpretation. For example, one question presented an essay entitled "Fun," by Suzanne Britt Jordan, and asked students what the author meant when she says "Fun is a rare jewel." Some 78 percent of students answered that correctly.

By contrast, students had more trouble with finding evidence from texts to support conclusions, and to make more nuanced interpretations. In one passage, students read Theodore Roosevelt's inaugural address. Students were asked: "Roosevelt begins his address by saying, 'no people on Earth have more cause to be thankful than ours.' According to Roosevelt, what are two specific reasons the American people at that time had to be thankful?" Just over half--55 percent--of students answered that correctly.

And only 41 percent could state what the following paragraph reveals about Roosevelt's view of how the United States should relate to foreign countries:

But justice and generosity in a nation, as in an individual, count most when shown not by the weak but by the strong. While ever careful to refrain from wrongdoing others, we must be no less insistent that we are not wronged ourselves. We wish peace, but we wish the peace of justice, the peace of righteousness. We wish it because we think it is right and not because we are afraid. No weak nation that acts manfully and justly should ever have cause to fear us, and no strong power should ever be able to single us out as a subject for insolent aggression.

In mathematics, the story is similar. Almost two-thirds of twelfth graders could read a scatterplot. But only a fourth could write a formula based on data on a spreadsheet.

One could quibble about these particular test questions, but the competencies they measure--using evidence to support conclusions, creating mathematical models--are important ones for students to develop. It is cause for concern when fewer than half of twelfth graders--students who are about to graduate from high school--can demonstrate them.

NAEP provides little information about why students have difficulty with those kinds of problems. But the assessment data shows the extent of the challenge. Now it is up to researchers, educators, and policy makers to figure out what to do about it.




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