The 2018 NAEP Rituals by Gerard Robinson

The 2017 math and reading results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the Nation’s Report Card, were recently released. Since 1969, NAEP has administered the largest national assessment of subject-matter achievement for a representative sample of students in grades 4, 8, and 12 in the United States. NAEP uses the same tests across states and districts, which includes public (traditional, charter, and magnet) and private school students. Given the reach of NAEP and, the symbolism we place on it regarding our children’s academic vitality, we look forward to its arrival.

The national news is disturbing: only 32% of fourth graders and 24% of eighth graders scored at proficient in mathematics, while only 27% of fourth graders and 32% of eighth graders scored at proficient in reading. Although a review of current math and reading scores across time points to minimal improvements, these results are lackluster considering the billions of dollars invested in public schools and philanthropic efforts within the past 30 years.

For starters, the average fourth grade mathematics score is 240 on a scale of 500. The score has remained unchanged since 2015, though it is lower than the 242 score posted in 2013. Although 242 remains the highest math score recorded by fourth graders between 1990-2017, every average mathematics score posted between 1990-2017 fell below proficient. The average eighth grade mathematics score, however, improved from 282 to 283, which is a positive sign.

The bad news is for lower-performing fourth graders in the 10th and 25th percentile. Their dropping scores are not a good sign for what may happen to them when they reach eighth grade if we do not intervene now. In other words, if our lowest performing students do not understand how to use whole numbers or grasp a conceptual understanding of fractions or geometric shapes, which NAEP identifies as necessary to be proficient in grade four, then their ability to manage algebra will be difficult by eighth grade.

The average fourth grade reading score is 222. This score is one point lower than 2015, though it is lower than the highest reading score recorded by fourth graders between 1990-2017. The average eighth grade reading score improved from 265 to 267, which is a positive sign, as well as the second highest average score recorded for eighth graders between 1992-2017. As is the case with math, the bad news is for lower-performing fourth graders in the 10th and 25th percentile. Their scores dropped. Reading is fundamental, literally and figuratively, so we have to get this right.

The national news for student populations provides a tale of two education pathways: one vibrant, one challenged. On average, Asians, whites, and students of two or more races outperformed students of color in reading and math. I will address this issue in another article.

What all of this means depends on perspective.

Many scholars, lawmakers, journalists, and advocates have expressed well thought-out opinions and evidence-based explanations about what the “Nation’s Report Card” signifies regarding the state of American education. For instance, some national spokespersons in search of an explanation for lackluster NAEP subgroup scores walk the line on poverty, race, class or inequitable state funding formulas. Others believe the use of digitally based assessments, a first for NAEP, are the culprit. Research points out that students score worse on tablet-based tests compared to paper tests, but testing experts offer a different perspective. Others blame the charter school movement that has attracted some of the public schools’ best test takers. Select members of the anti-Common Core, PARCC or Smarter Balance camps are sporting “I told you so” grins, while Every Student Succeeds Act supporters say “Let’s wait to see what happens now that states are in control” of education.

At the end of the day, everyone’s views are plausible, particularly absent a clear answer for why NAEP scores remain relatively flat from 2015 and what this means for American education.

I find NAEP to be a political ritual. It plays out with the release of all standardized test scores, but especially with NAEP because of its national importance and methodological rigor. This is particularly true for state education chiefs. Many are waving a flag when news is good for her or his state or district(s), and deservedly so, as my former colleague in Florida, Commissioner Pam Stewart, is doing right now. At the same time, some chiefs understandably cry foul when their state is performing worse than expected. Local superintendents, educators, and interest groups do the same.

In fact, after those groups huddle with respective education department researchers and communication specialists, a released press statement highlights the gains and massages the drops. After a week of news coverage and social media battles, all of us promise to do better the next time. Then we move on to the next education issue. I know how this works because I participated in the ritual when I was a state education leader in Virginia and Florida, and during my time as a researcher at the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University.

If we must participate in a political ritual, then let us transform it into a time for schools, districts, states, and the federal government to find practical explorations and evidence-based inquiries of how we produced these NAEP scores and, most importantly, how NAEP data can guide improvements for our math and reading education for the next group of 4th and 8th graders. The Center for Advancing Opportunity, where I am the executive director, will be a part of this transformation by supporting research for education reforms based upon data collected from 6,230 people living in fragile communities in 49 states and the District of Columbia, and partnering with scholars at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other postsecondary institutions.

By Gerard Robinson, Executive Director, Center for Advancing Opportunity