Telling the Truth About NAEP Scores

When the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released the 12th grade reading scores last week, the supporters of the status quo were hard pressed to come up with anything positive to say. Because reading scores have flat-lined, the best that the defenders of our ‘evolutionary’ approach to school reform could do was talk about how the new Common Core State Standards are poised to make a huge difference. For example, former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise, now the head of the Alliance for Excellent Education, cited the low scores as proof of the “desperate need for the aggressive implementation” of the standards. Keep on keeping on, he seemed to be saying, and don’t look back.

Another interpretation from establishment circles suggested the low scores are actually evidence of the success of the country’s’ “Stay in School” effort; that insight came from the acting Commissioner of the US Department of Education’s statistics office, who suggested that scores were lower because kids who before the “Stay in School” push would have dropped out were now staying in school–and apparently doing badly on tests. Our success is making us look bad, he seemed to be saying.

But while the supporters of the Common Core may see the dismal results as reason to push harder in the same direction, others say we should look carefully at what the past dozen or so years of increased high stakes testing and test-based accountability (for students and teachers) have produced.{{1}} Perhaps it’s time to rethink what we have been doing since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001? After all, it’s now 2014, so we have a lot of data.

The left–eager to scrap NCLB and its successor, Race to the Top–is using these NAEP results to support its argument. Here’s Guy Brandenburg’s analysis. In his blog, he asks, ‘Just how flat are those 12th grade NAEP scores?’ His answer, in part: “The short answer is: those scores have essentially not changed since they began giving the tests! Not for the kids at the top of the testing heap, not for those at the bottom, not for blacks, not for whites, not for hispanics.

No change, nada, zip.”

What Mr. Brandenburg has done is look for long-term patterns, something those in authority are not prone to do. I think it’s significant to consider what NAEP data can tell us about performance differences among racial groups (‘the achievement gap’) over time–but not just in 12th grade reading but in 4th and 8th grades as well.

NAEP generally tests a sample of 4th and 8th grade students in math and reading every few years. What I have done in the chart below is put the District of Columbia’s 2013 scores against the earliest available data for each category. (I used different years because in some years the District {{2}} did not have enough White kids to allow for comparisons.) What you will see is that, although the gap has grown smaller in three of the four categories, it remains the largest in the nation–by far–in all four categories:


These bad numbers may be news to you, because politicians, educators and editorial pages have not reported that DC’s scores and its achievement gaps are the worst in the nation (often by a wide margin). Instead, they report–triumphantly–that scores are going up and the gap has gotten smaller. They want to convince us, and perhaps themselves, that what they are doing (or supporting) is working.

For example, in November 2013, when it released 4th and 8th grade results, NAEP praised Washington: “The District of Columbia, Tennessee, and the Department of Defense schools were the only states/jurisdictions to score higher than in 2011 in both subjects at both grades 4 and 8.”

When Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the November 2013 results, he too praised the District’s performance. “Among states that are making progress, Tennessee, the District of Columbia, and Hawaii made noteworthy gains in eighth grade and fourth grade in reading and/or math from 2011 to 2013.”{{3}}

How Secretary Duncan addressed the achievement gap encapsulates the problem. By sticking to the here-and-now, he avoided the long-term picture: “And while students in each racial group identified in the NAEP showed improvement in some areas, it is very troubling that achievement gaps between white and black students, and white and Hispanic students, failed to narrow from 2011 to 2013.”

That hits just the right note of concern (“very troubling”)…but at the same time it obscures the harsh truth: things have not improved over time.{{4}} Take another look at that chart. Any thinking person, Republican or Democrat, looking those numbers squarely in the face would have to question the path we are on. No one in power seems to want to do that.

Somebody should…..

Instead, the Secretary of Education, Achieve, the Alliance for Excellent Education and others are presenting the Common Core State Standards as a giant leap forward. Forward? From what? “Forward” is not a convincing argument when you look at the spot we are leaping from, or when you look at the long term NAEP data that reveals the impact of the policies we’ve been following.

We need higher standards, but pushing that “Forward” line seems to me to actually threaten the Common Core, not make the case for it.

I think the Common Core State Standards would be more appealing if they could honestly be presented as a departure from test-based accountability and a narrowed curriculum. But if the Common Core represent an expansion/continuation/evolution of today’s policies, which the evidence suggests are a failure, why would any impartial person endorse that?


[[1]]1. Besides all the cheating scandals, the most recent being last week in Philadelphia.[[1]]

[[2]]2. I know Washington, DC, schools better than any other district’s. My three children went to public schools there, and I have done considerable reporting about the system over the past 40 years. [[2]]

[[3]]3. He added an apparent reference to Washington’s widespread erasures on its own standardized test, the DC-CAS.  “Signs of progress on the NAEP—known as the nation’s report card—are especially compelling because they cannot be attributed to teaching to the test or testing irregularities, such as cheating.”  (For more about that: )[[3]]

[[4]]4. The numbers for other states are also depressing. Take Minnesota, for example. Since 1998, its achievement gaps have increased in 8th grade math and reading and shrunk ever so slightly in 4th grade math and reading.[[4]]

12 thoughts on “Telling the Truth About NAEP Scores

  1. Perhaps I should have included more of Secretary Duncan’s statement, particularly these words that seem to call for more of the same: “We project that our nation’s public schools will become majority-minority this fall – making it even more urgent to put renewed attention into the academic rigor and equity of course offerings and into efforts to redesign high schools.”


  2. Yes, no real progress. The NAEP long-term trend for grade 12 shows the same results – no progress, including for demographic groups. For grades 4 and 8 main NAEP results in both reading and math show a steadily slowing rate of improvement since NCLB came into effect, now flat or barely moving for almost every group in both subjects. See which includes data and links on NAEP results. (Noting that in any case we are measuring two subjects and hence ignoring the consequences of narrowed curriculum, and that NAEP itself is a weak measure of higher order thinking.)

    The problem is the the Common Core as it will exist in the real world – that is, the tests – are at best slight improvements over existing tests (those content improvements perhaps negated by overly complex language and technological issues). The high stakes remain, with states forced to choose between the hard rocks of NCLB or Duncan’s waivers.

    Why? Educational progress is certainly not the answer.


  3. Who are those white kids in the DC schools, (SES)? If there are too
    few for comparison in some years, it means that there are very few in any
    year. I don’t doubt that the DC schools are and were pretty bad, before and
    after the miracle of Michelle, but are the whites real outliers ( pardon the double meaning)?


    • There are essentially no white working-class kids in DC at all. Instead, they are from educated, professional families almost exclusively. As a result, white kids in DCPS are the highest scoring subgroup that I have found anywhere in the US as measured on the NAEP.


  4. Hello John, et al,

    I frequently point out that the news is actually worse than this. The dismal results must be viewed in an additional context.

    The “high stakes” testing era has been characterized, among other bad things, by a great deal of time being spent teaching kids to take tests. All other things being equal, this training should predict an increase in performance regardless of whether anything useful was learned. The fact that the scores are flat indicates that proficiency is actually lower, despite the decade + of utter insanity.


    • I have been a classroom teacher for more than 25 years. It is possible that one reason for the flat scores is the retaining of students who otherwise might have dropped out.

      Another reason may be due to the low SEC of so many students (over 50% of our students in my district, the largest high school district in California) are now Hispanic/Latino.

      Some things are better than, for example, 1997. Bilingual education was curtailed by prop 227 (a very necessary reform in my opinion) and that has meant more students being taught earlier and later in the English medium. The effect of student’s English ability has been striking. Only 10 or 15 years ago a high proportion of my students were rated ELD level 1 or level 2 (novice). Today over 90% of my seniors are FEP (Fully English proficient) and the majority of the rest are ELD level 3 or 4 and have a decent chance to graduate this month. And of that group 70% have all their credits and have passed their math exit exam. So if for some reason they do not graduate this month they have a 95% chance to get their diploma in the Adult School next year. They are no longer at risk because they can communicate in English and they know English; they just need to polish and perfect their English (by improving grammar, writing and knowledge of literary devices).

      Years ago many of these students would have dropped out with very low English skills and very low in credits. On the other hand the “MC” testing regime has led to a lot of superficial learning. Once again, I am not against “testing”. I test and quiz my students constantly.

      But in my own classes I like more sophisticated tests that require reading, identification of terms, people and events in writing. I also like students to make maps and interpret maps. One thing that has gone completely by the board, however, in social studies classes is the research paper. Another thing is the book report. I try to share articles and book reviews with my students but our libraries (both school and town) are no longer up to date and have few materials suitable for class book reports.

      Essentially only a few honors and AP students to any reading outside of the text book. Most do not even attempt (or cannot ) read the text book. I often take surveys in my class on magazines and newspapers that students read. It is not an exaggeration to say that fewer than 3% read newspapers even once a week. On the other hand most students have fancy i-phones and spend about 20-30 hours a week on facebook or texting or calling their friends (even during class). Students are not “allowed “to have their ipods or phones on during class but they are allowed to have them. Unless I am proctoring a major test (my own or AP) I cannot say that there is little or no usage of electronic devices. I ask students to keep their phones off and concentrate on class work but of course almost everyone breaks that rule on a regular basis.

      It is also worrisome to see students photograph the homework of classmates to they can copy out the formulas without doing the work. I am sure cell phones are used to cheat on major exams. It is occasionally useful to have additional devices available (we have a few laptops in class) so the students can work on some group projects together (researching economic facts for example) but ipods and ear buds are so small and are a great distraction without any redeeming academic value.

      And of course every teacher knows he or she could be recorded ( and edited and mocked) on youtube. We have seen students recording teachers breaking up fights and usually this looks bad for teachers. In my long career I have had to take knives from students and break up fights. Fortunately for me these were in the 1980’s and 1990’s when the only evidence was from student interviews about the event. Usually the campus police and administrators supported the teacher. Usually these turned out very favorably for teachers because most students support teachers and classroom control.

      Now of course, principals themselves become directly involved and make snap decision based on an angry outburst of a student or as we have seen recently a desperate attempt but a relatively small female teacher trying to break up a fight. I am 6′ 1” over 250 pounds and an ex-Marine so I have never had to resort to using chairs or pointers.

      But thinking back when I had to knock over a student who was brandishing a knife (a steel one) it may not have looked so good if someone only saw the end result (me on top of the student, grabbing his wrist and banging it on the floor with all my might until he let go of the knife and an adult aide grabbed the knife in question. Then I put him in a full nelson until security showed up. But I had no time to make the call myself and I was lucky the adult aid was experienced and I had a phone in my classroom. When I first started teaching we had no phones or internet just a pay phone in the front of the school 15 minutes away! It was not a pretty picture at all.

      But it was literally a matter of life or death for me and the students who had been threatened by that student). I haven’t changed my attitudes or my classroom management methods very greatly but I tell all young teachers that anything thing they say or do could be recorded on posted on the internet and they should think of that.

      Knowing you could be recorded and filmed does have a damper on free classroom discussion. 25 years ago if someone wanted to discuss a controversial word or theme I might take a moment to discuss it in an adult and intellectual way. Today I am much more reluctant.

      I have come to say, “no es materia del examen” (it is not on the test) so if students are interested they can see me on their free time.

      That is unfortunate in some ways but no classroom teacher wants to be accused of “not teaching the official curriculum. Before it was sufficient to be on task 90% or 95% of the time. So things have changed.

      But the biggest change from 30 or 40 years ago is the decline of numeracy, literacy of the students. Many are English learners. Many are just barely “basic” or “below basic” and many have very little interest in self improvement. If they meet the minimum standards and get a D- or “basic” (below proficient) they are all right with that. Student apathy is a big problem in k-12 education today, particularly in the higher grades.

      Mind you we still have an “AP/IB” Elite who are as good or better than students 30 or 40 years ago.

      But the middle and the bottom is much lower in motivation, discipline and actual academic achievement. Part of this is due, i am convinced, to the deadly dull “Scantron God” (or multiple choice ) testing regime.

      I also teach remedial CAHSEE (High School exit exam) English.

      The first thing I do is do no multiple choice testing at all. Students read, engage in classroom discussion, write out definitions and words with different connotations, write, write and write, read, read and read (including some short books, many articles and stories).

      The only time I practice with multiple choice test items is in the weeks prior to the exam and I do not actually administer tests. I flash the MC questions on the smart board (color coded) and we take turns doing them orally. Student take notes of their mistake to make a “hit list” to review before the CAHSEE. I emphasize active rehearsal and the keys to memory. We drill and practice rules of punctuation until student have the basics down pat. But I have no interest in “A, B, C, or D” but want them to interpret the relative merits of each item and of course strategies for answering each type of question.

      I have found that is plenty of MC practice. Students are very familiar with this format almost too much so that their eyes just glaze over. When teaching a story or a poem I never have any MC at all. Instead we concentrate on “critical vocabulary”, “cultural literacy” and “literary analysis.” I emphasize that they are not required to memorize any particular author or story or play or poem BUT the best way to understand literary devices is to remember examples from famous poems or stories. I also encourage student to read independently.

      I have a junior who has failed the CAHSEE every time and is making little progress. He can speak English but is a heritage Spanish speaker. He has no idea about academic English and slang and has a low active and passive vocabulary. But he is a nice kid and wants to graduate from high school. I tell him -since he has all his credits- the thing to do is READ AT LEAST ONE HOUR or more EVERY DAY in the summer. I tell him to get the local paper or Reader’s Digest or sport stories or adventure stories and read carefully keeping a vocabulary notebook.

      This student is slowly coming around but when i first got him he had no idea how to outline, to write a five paragraph essay with a thesis, or what the parts of speech were or the different verb tenses. He had no idea of roots, prefixes, suffixes and word analysis. He just picked any word he liked; he had no idea that some words (like “piss” or S**t) were coarse or vulgar and others (like “urinate” or “excrement”) were cooler in tone and more academic. Here is a student who was born in America and has gone to school , regularly, since the early grades. But academic standard English is virtually a foreign language to him. And no wonder. He has no books or newspapers or magazines at home. He doe not listen to the radio for news (or even ball games). He does not watch the news on TV or documentaries or even what we might call movies with some redeeming or cultural value. He mostly listens to rap music and watches R-rated action movies. He only speaks a local “patois” with his friends and doesn’t want to talk like a “Schoolboy” (definitely a pejorative). I never give up on students but the lower students are much more at risk today than they were 40 years ago. Their naivete and ignorance on the most basic facts never cease to amaze me. The most elemental literary or cultural allusion, the “Good Samaritan, “By the Waters of Babylon” or “the city on the hill” is beyond them.

      Once again, 40 years ago I could make a reference to the “Matthew effect” (the rich get richer) or the psalms and most students would have instantly known it was from the Bible. Not any longer.

      Not to long ago a student asked me -in all seriousness- “What part of Mexico is Spain in?” This student, partially a product of Mexican rural public education, was not aware Spain’s colonial relationship with Mexico (or Latin America for that matter) and had never heard of WWII or Hitler let alone WWI or Vietnam or almost anything else. This was not a six year only. This was a 16 year old.

      Such are the great challenges that represent themselves to American teachers today. Such is the result of social promotion and placing students in high school according to their age whether or not they had any schooling past the fifth grade. Such is the result of teaching to the test instead of teaching students to read, to think, to compute and learn how to learn for themselves.

      I constantly ask my students questions like, “When are you going to stop learning English? or ” How does Boko Haram compare to the Taliban or the Nazi party?” I don’t care what their answers are. Sometimes they don’t have a good answer. Sometimes they ask me questions and I say, “I have no real answer or enough specific knowledge to answer that but I will take a note and get back to you. That is a great question!.” Sometimes I pause an open my dictionaries (some bilingual) right on the spot to try to verify or clarify an answer and then I write it on the board letting them know this fact or word is a “bonus.” Boko Haram is not on the standardized test but, as I mention to my students neither was the Taliban when I was in school or Hitler or the Nazi Party on tests of the 1920’s or 1930’s.

      Students often do not understand nor appreciate the value of a free public education. It is my job to help teach them them importance of a solid, well-rounded education. School is not a punishment but should be a “place of many welcomes” (to paraphrase a little known 19th century teacher). All over my classroom (now in many different languages) is a saying which expresses a key educational idea: the importance of education for the individual, for the community an for the society as a whole. It teaches that education is not a luxury but a necessity (especially in our modern technological world). It teaches that education is freedom just as sure as ignorance is a form of bondage. It is from Epictetus and the classical tradition. It says simply : ONLY THE EDUCATED ARE FREE. We have to invite our students to learn for enlightenment and for joy and self-fulfillment to help alleviate the suffering and disadvantages of poverty and misery. And the real test is not tomorrow. It is not a bubble test. It is not 20 or 50 or 80 multiple choice questions on the computer. The real test is life.


  5. Is anyone considering the number of talented, very experienced, solid and creative teachers that this approach has and is pushing out, now that they are nearing the time when they could manage to afford retiring from the public school system, despite having the love, the mind and the vigor of telling education to those who will listen, colleagues usually, and listen to those who remind us what it is about as a creative activity, our students usually.


  6. Step right this way, said the blind man as he took the blind man by the elbow…

    I’ve been using 12th grade NAEP — flat as a dead man’s EKG since 1971 — to argue for the Common Core simply because alone among major reform initiatives, it concerns itself with what children learn and teachers teach. Changing the structures around schooling — testing, charters, teacher quality, data, etc. — says nothing about what kids do all day, only where they do it and under whose direction.

    Content matters, as John himself knows being familiar with the work of E.D. Hirsch, Jr. CCSS is all but a flashing neon advertisement for a content-centric view of literacy. I’m deeply sympathetic to those who decry test prep. Simply put, if you think you can prepare kids for a reading test, you don’t understand how reading actually works.


  7. puh leaze. I am a demographer, but one who studies rhetoeic. Yes, newly retained low achievers lower the average. But by no more their weight and deficit. Retention has NOT gone up much, and those ‘saved’ have not been especially deficient.
    No, folks: the threat and promise of the old saw, “The flogging will continue until morale improves” still holds in “performance-accountable” public education. And if I, as an experienced teacher and responsible parent and provider have 20% of my Fall students diagnostically testing two grade levels BELOW the purported base-line and previously “tested” floor I will be judged to build on, then I WILL NOT refuse a career change out of teaching, so I am accountable for my own achievements, and not responsible for others’ cheating or regession under a VAM regime.
    If teachers matter so much, let’s see what learning takes place when those smart enough to escape falsely-attributed malpractice-risk flee the profession or refuse to enter it.
    Yes, lets see how supposed improvement of curriculum through the Common Corps offsets the continued diminishment of a teacher corps smart enough to teach it.


  8. Do we need higher standards because too many of today’s students are finding it too easy to hit the current ones? Maybe they should ask those who have not spent their lives in the education cocoon what are the skills and behaviors you need to have a satisfying life before setting standards. The success of project-based learning — even if it doesn’t produce easy to (mis)read metrics — is suggestive.


  9. The way to help kids is to help their parents. This would intrude on the economic power structure though so you will never hear it. Instead, more yelling at teachers.


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