NAEP Scores Deserve Our Attention

A Statement from the Collaborative for Student Success

Today (October 30, 2019), the independent benchmark test called the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) released new student results for fourth and eighth graders in math and reading. Known as the Nation’s Report Card, the results from the report are informative and are one tool educators and policymakers can use to assess how our students are performing. For all of us it is a key moment to identify opportunities for growth and improvement.

This year’s report shows both areas of growth and challenge.  But something that deserves all of our attention is a decrease across 17 states in 4th grade reading, and 31 states in 8th grade reading.

While there are many different possible reasons for the results decreasing, what is important to remember is that results can only be improved if we provide strong systems of support for educators and students.

  • Research in 2016 from the Rand Corporation suggests that K-12 ELA teachers throughout the country may require additional support to teach to their state’s ELA and literacy standards.
  • Over the last few years, many states have struggled to maintain consistency in state assessments, which has created changing expectations for students.
  • Research out of Northwestern University points to the lingering negative effects of school spending cuts on test performance.
  • A lack of focus on accountability in many state K-12 systems, as detailed by the Collaborative’s own Check State Plans initiative, can also not be overlooked.

And in the coming days, we will hear additional reasons.  Among the reasons that are emerging include inadequate funding levels, the lack of options and choice and other classroom challenges.  Given the decrease and the inextricable link between reading and academic success, we call upon policymakers, educators and advocates, to thoroughly consider all possibilities, with policy implementation in addition to the policies themselves, and related improvement strategies.

NAEP intentionally sets a high bar for proficiency, which is generally higher than state proficiency standards. In fact, a 2015 study of the alignment of the NAEP mathematics for 4th and 8th grade found that the content was not matched well or at all to high-academic standards. It is important that we continue the conversation on different systems of accountability and measuring student performance. The bar needs to stay high. States that have put high academic standards in place also use high-quality assessments to measure performance and review the progress their students have made and set proficiency as the baseline for what is needed. This is another powerful way to see areas of growth and areas of improvement across the nation.

Math results are relatively flat, but we should acknowledge that NAEP is in the process of better aligning itself to what students learn in today’s classrooms.  Those updates and changes will not be incorporated until 2025.

The states that performed well provide an important lesson for all. With a focus on high-quality curriculum and effective implementation strategies, Mississippi and District of Columbia saw positive reading results.  In 4th grade, Mississippi’s scores increased by four points, while in 8th grade, D.C.’s scores increased by three points.  D.C.  attributes its success to the strong commitment to standards and assessments, investments in teacher talent and access to universal Pre-K. Louisiana also shows what is possible in math when there is strong focus on curriculum materials. It is encouraging to see their five-point increase in 8th grade mathematics, but there is still much to do about performance. Mississippi, Louisiana and the District of Columbia also have had in place consistent college and career-ready standards for their students.  Their approach provides useful information to other states about progress.

The decline in reading results must sound an alarm and serve as a call to action for state policymakers, education officials and advocates, as well as everyone in the education community. We should prioritize systems of improvement for reading, including proven reading strategies, so states can better serve all students. Embracing what we know about the science of learning, such as incorporating strategies that work and removing materials that don’t, is certainly one of the best places to start to sound the alarm. In doing so, we can learn from the pockets of success and focus our efforts on increasing access to and the use of high-quality aligned curriculum, while supporting educators with professional development on how best to use that curriculum. We must acknowledge that sound policy in the absence of strong execution does not change outcomes for students, and commend leaders who have committed to strong curriculum, high expectations, and quality assessments, even in the face of political resistance.

In summary, it is imperative that we focus on how to work together as a nation to better serve all students and ensure that schools and educators are receiving the supports needed to make necessary improvements. As an organization, the Collaborative for Student Success will continue to look to partner with those who are employing best practices and specifically look to work with those who want to commit to improve conditions for mastering reading, so all students are set up for success.