Opinion

Proficiency and NAEP scores: Let’s stop talking about trivial distinctions and focus on ending inequality instead

Five ways we can get a grip

James Harvey is executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable.

It was as predictable as night following day that this week’s release of results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress would be followed by weeping and gnashing of teeth on a biblical scale.

But while the NAEP results reveal plenty to worry about, anxiety over the findings should focus on the inequities they reveal, not trivial score differences from year to year.

As we read NAEP’s latest report, we should focus on what truly matters. NAEP, the “Nation’s Report Card,” is an important indicator in the education world, but it’s no model of clarity.   “Eight subjects … three grades  … one report card” promises the NAEP website. However, this should come with a giant sign: “Caution: Fog of Numbers Ahead.”

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Just as an example, in its long-term trend assessment, NAEP reports on results for 9-, 13-, and 17-year olds, but in the national assessment reported this week it focuses on grades 4, 8, and 12. Each assessment also covers slightly different curriculum content. To throw things into even more of a cocked hat, at one point NAEP began reporting math scores on a 0-300 scale, making it difficult to compare results reported on this scale with earlier NAEP assessments reported on a 0-500 scale.

This all makes a shaky foundation for year-to-year comparisons. One consequence of these confusing shifts in labels and scales is that as results are released, one can say pretty much whatever one wants about them.

The latest announcement of 12th-grade NAEP results comes in the form of slick graphics and tables accompanied by lots of official handwringing. Math scores declined one point between 2013 and 2015. They’re down five points since 1992. Only one-quarter of students are proficient in math, and just 37 percent in reading. These non-proficient students are not prepared for college work.

Sounds like a five-alarm fire. But let’s get a grip on the whole picture before we rev up the fire trucks and send them to the wrong address.

Here are five things that we should keep in mind as we consider NAEP results.

Proficient does not mean at grade level. Many educators, including former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, confuse NAEP’s proficiency benchmark with being on grade level. Proficiency is a much higher standard. Two experts associated with NAEP’s National Assessment Governing Board (Mary Lynne Bourque and Susan Loomis) made it clear in 2001 that NAEP’s “proficient achievement level does not refer to ‘at grade’ performance.” In fact, a 2007 study revealed that 50 percent of the students judged to be merely “basic” in mathematics completed a four-year degree. Many non-proficient students are in fact fully prepared for college work.

Proficient doesn’t even mean proficient. Bourque and Loomis went on to say: “Nor is performance at the proficient level synonymous with ‘proficiency’ in the subject.  That is, students who may be considered proficient in a subject, given the common usage of the term, might not satisfy the requirements for performance at the NAEP achievement level.” In abusing language this way, the government misleads the American people.

On the long-term trend assessment, NAEP scores for 17-year olds increased in both reading and math between 1971 and 2012. Over the long haul, NAEP scores increased by two points in both reading and mathematics. Have they fallen since? We can’t say, since the latest results for 12th-graders reflect assessments of slightly different content.

And scores increased for every major ethnic group between 1971 and 2012. Scores increased across the board for 17-year olds. In reading: scores for white students, up 4 points; for African-Americans, up 30; for Hispanic students, an increase of 21 points. In math, the news is similar: white students, up 4 points; African-American students, up 18; and Hispanic students, up 17. These are enormously positive findings given the demographic transformation in our schools. In 1971, students of color, many of them poor, made up just 12 percent of public school enrollments; in 2015 minority enrollment sat at 52 percent — and more than half of all public school students were eligible for subsidized meals, a widely accepted metric for student poverty.

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Inequality is what stands out in the NAEP results. We still find huge gaps in achievement between white students and many students of color, between the children of college graduates and those of high school dropouts, between students in the Northeast and those in the South, and between students learning English and those who are not. We also know three things: the U.S. has the highest rates of student poverty in the developed world; one million students are homeless; and per-pupil spending ranges from about $6,500 in some districts to more than $40,000 in others.

It is these desperate inequities in children’s lives that we should be talking about, not overwrought pronouncements about the implications of highly questionable definitions of proficiency. If we want to prepare low-income students for college, policymakers need to do something meaningful to change the reality of these children’s lives. That work is tough, expensive, and educationally and socially complex, but it’s the work we need to tackle as a nation.

James Harvey is executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable. 

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James Harvey

James Harvey is executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable. See Archive

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