Yesterday the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores from 2013 were released. According to Education Week, eighth grade math scores rose by one point with a three point gain in reading. Fourth graders gained a point in math with no significant change in reading.
The NAEP is a test given across the states every two years. It is used neither to diagnose students’ specific learning needs nor to evaluate any specific child’s performance nor to evaluate teachers or specific schools. Not all schools are tested and not all children who take the test are given the entire test. It is administered across the country as an overall assessment of how America’s public schools are doing.
Diane Ravitch, who served for several years on the National Assessment Governing Board, explains the operation and significance of NAEP in her new book Reign of Error: “NAEP is central to any discussion of whether American students and the public schools they attend are doing well or badly. It has measured reading and math and other subjects over time. It is administered to samples of students; no one knows who will take it, no one can prepare to take it, no one takes the whole test. There are no stakes attached to NAEP; no student ever gets a test score.” (p. 45) Ravitch explains that the NAEP has tested students every two years since 1992, with a long form that has been administered since the early 1970s.
For all groups of children—at all ethnic, racial, and economic levels—NAEP scores have been slowly and steadily climbing over time. Achievement gaps by race and economics, however, have not narrowed; although black and brown and poor children have steadily improved their scores, so have white and Asian children. According to the reports in yesterday’s press, the long term trend was not interrupted in the 2013 NAEP scores. Education Week reports: “In 2013, 51 percent of Asian students and 46 percent of white students reached proficiency in 4th grade reading, compared with 20 percent of Hispanic students and 18 percent of black students… Only one quarter of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals reached proficiency in 4th grade math, compared with 59 percent of their wealthier peers.” Because the proficiency benchmark score is known to be set very high for the NAEP, the overall low numbers of reported proficiency should not frighten us. However, the persistent gaps by race, ethnicity and economic level are deeply troubling.
There are a couple of obvious facts that stand out. First, the No Child Left Behind Act with its test-and-punish philosophy, that tried to scare educators into working harder and smarter and doing more with less, has not succeeded in its goal of closing achievement gaps. Neither have the huge national competitive grant programs of the Obama-Duncan Department of Education. These experiments in test-based-accountability have not addressed the inequities that are closely tied to achievement gaps.
While we ought to be relieved that the mass of standardized testing our children face today has not entirely reversed past progress, we must face the reality that test-and-punish school reform has failed to address the needs of our society’s poorest children who continue to struggle. According to Motoko Rich in the NY Times, the highest scoring states on this year’s NAEP include Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Jersey, states with lower proportions of children living in poverty.
Scores this year climbed fastest in Washington, D.C., but when Gary Rubenstein, a New York City math teacher and blogger, examined the numbers, he discovered that Washington, D.C.’s NAEP scores remain 64 points below the national average, lower than scores in any state. His analysis demonstrates that the gap between students who qualify for free lunch and those who don’t qualify remains wider in Washington, D.C. than in any state: a shocking 157 points.