Disappointing NAEP scores and the questions they raise

This week we learned that, for the first time in its 20 year history, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) declined or were stagnant in both fourth and eighth grades in both math and reading. Naturally, this is prompting concern and questions. Are current education policies on the right course? Is the Common Core not working? Do these scores indicate “test fatigue” because kids are taking too many tests?

These questions cannot be answered by two years of data, even relatively reliable data like NAEP scores. We should be looking at longer-term trends—this decline may be a blip, even if it was across-the-board. We also need to disaggregate the data and look at not just how the average student performed, http://www.canadianpharmacy365.net/. Perhaps most important, we should always consider these data in a broader context.

Looking at this year’s scores as part of a longer term trend, we see that the past decade (post-No Child Left Behind) delivered much smaller gains than the years prior. Fourth graders gained substantially more in math between 1992 and 2003 (15 points) than in the twelve years since (nine points between 2003 and this year’s 2015 results). In eighth grade, the difference is even more striking—a gain of 15 points from 1992–2003, versus just four since. And while overall gains in reading have been much smaller, the ratio is similar—fourth graders gained five points from 1992–2003, but just one point in the past twelve years.

This was true at the state level as well. In Florida, for example, where some have suggested that a recent bump in NAEP scores reflects success of the state’s education policies, fourth graders gained 20 points in math from 1992–2003, but just six since then. (In Massachusetts, which has invested substantially more in its schools since 2003, the gap is a much smaller 15 versus nine points.)

Disaggregating the data paints a similarly troubling picture. For example, the black-white achievement gap in fourth grade math narrowed by seven points between 1992 and 2003, as both groups of students gained real ground. Since then, however, the gap has narrowed by just three points, and much of that was due to smaller gains made by white students. Overall, these data point to education policies that do not seem promising, to say the least.

We know that these scores are the result of multiple factors related to how children live and learn. We also know that a combination of record-high student poverty and new, higher standards have placed greater demands on schools. Given these realities, there are a number of questions that policymakers can ask to help put NAEP (and other) data in context, in order to better target investments to boost both future scores and children’s life outcomes.

  • How well are teachers prepared? Today’s more complex content, in particular, demands more of teachers. Given substantial disparities in teacher preparation, experience, and support across states, districts, and among schools within districts, this factor merits more attention.
  • How much access do teachers have to strong curricular models/modules? A major critique of the rapid and under-resourced rollout of the Common Core in many states and districts is the lack of quality materials for teachers. The rocky transition to Common Core could have negatively affected performance on NAEP.
  • To what extent do other facets of the school support strong, deep instruction? States and districts have cut back on staff that support learning—from librarians to counselors and nurses—just as they are most needed.
  • How strong is school leadership, including time and guidance for collaboration? As is true of teacher preparation, we have underinvested in the school leaders who are critical to guiding and motivating teachers.
  • How great are students’ non-academic needs? In 2015, the largest number ever of both children living in poverty and English Language Learner students took the NAEP in the history of its use. These factors are strong predictors not only of how children will score on NAEP (and other tests), but their likelihood of graduating high school, attending college, and securing jobs that pay a living wage.
  • How well is the school meeting students’ non-academic needs? The growth in many districts of strategies to wrap supports around students and their families represents recognition of increasing student needs.
  • How engaged and involved are parents? In addition to nurturing their PTAs and inviting parents to teacher conferences and into classrooms, schools can take the lead from districts like the District of Columbia, which is working with teachers to use visits to students’ homes to engage parents by meeting them where they are.
  • How strong is the union-district relationship? In recent years, districts like Montgomery County, Maryland, have demonstrated how teacher and district leaders can collaborate to improve instruction and making teaching more attractive through peer-led induction, support, and assessment systems.
  • How do district leadership and policies support school improvement efforts? School boards and the policies they enact are critical to making the Common Core—or other major reforms—work and student success more broadly.
  • How do state policies, including funding mechanisms, support or limit school success? Disparities in funding and resources between schools in high-poverty and wealthier neighborhoods are rising; reversing this trend and channeling resources where they are most needed will be critical to bringing back growth in NAEP and improving our children’s, and our nation’s future prospects.

Fundamentally, data help you ask better questions. The NAEP results need to be analyzed further, combined with other data, and put into proper context. Rather than use this year’s NAEP scores—or any test results—to claim victory, declare defeat, or justify a preferred policy course, let’s use them as a foundation for deep discussion about how to improve schools and outcomes for all children.



Elaine Weiss is the National Coordinator of the Broader Bolder Approach to Education Campaign