Up the Down Scorecard

, Kristen Blair, Leave a comment

Recent data place American students on an upward academic trajectory. Results from Tuesday’s release of the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” reveal reading and math gains for both
elementary and middle school students. Earlier this month, North Carolina announced 2006-07 ABCs test results, likely touching off mirthful back-slapping and high-fives among state officials: 71.8 percent of state public schools made high or expected growth (.pdf), a substantial 17.5 percent increase over the year before.

This sounds like good news all around. But is it really? Are students making genuine strides academically? The answer is yes … and no. As is so often the case with statistical data, the devil is in the details.

When it comes to NAEP, national achievement gains are real, albeit small. Math scores for fourth graders have risen two points since 2005 (NAEP is administered every two years to a representative sampling of students around the country). Eighth grade math scores went up three points. Both grade levels posted higher math gains than in any previous assessment – clearly, a meaningful increase. In reading, fourth grade scores were up two points from 2005, while eighth graders boosted performance by one point.

Here’s the cautionary note, though: despite a modest uptick at the national level, we’re still far from where we need to be. A majority of American students still lacks proficiency (defined as “solid academic performance for each grade assessed”) in both of NAEP’s main content areas. In 2007, just 33 percent of fourth graders (.pdf) and 31 percent of eighth
(.pdf) scored at or above proficient levels in reading. Students fared slightly better in math, with 39 percent of fourth graders (.pdf) and 32 percent of eighth graders (.pdf) meeting or exceeding proficiency goals.

Significant, lasting gains in reading performance are proving particularly hard to come by. This is unwelcome news to the lawmakers who cheered sizeable spending increases on reading programs. Although it has “seen the greatest investment of federal and state education spending over the past several years,” (according to Education Week), reading literacy is one tough nut to crack. Clearly, more money alone isn’t the answer. Amanda Avallone, a member of NAEP’s governing board, summed
up the disappointing trend: “The NAEP data for 2007 – and indeed over the past 15 years –
suggest that substantial improvement in reading achievement is eluding us as a nation.”

Closer to home, North Carolina’s 2007 NAEP scores went up minimally; however, these increases were not statistically significant, meaning performance has essentially stayed flat since 2005.

What’s most disturbing about the recent raft of data is the unmistakable disconnect between NAEP state numbers and North Carolina test results. According to Terry Stoops, education analyst at the John Locke Foundation, discrepancies between the two measures can vary as much as 60 points. Currently, a whopping 88 percent of eighth graders are deemed to be proficient or better on state reading tests, while only 28 percent scored at or above proficient levels on the recent NAEP exam. Researchers have caught on to our ongoing grade inflation: a 2006 Education Next article by Paul Peterson and Frederick Hess gave
North Carolina a grade of “F” for lax state standards. And a June 2007 report (.pdf) from the National Center for Education Statistics mapping state proficiency standards onto NAEP scales placed North Carolina consistently near the bottom of the heap.

What does all of this mean? Any way you slice it, NAEP data provide a valuable benchmark for student performance, showcasing legitimate academic gains and illuminating areas needing attention. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of our state assessments.

It’s time to replace North Carolina’s exams with an independent, nationally normed achievement test. Doing so would interject genuine accountability into our state’s testing system and put an end to our self-made academic delusions. After all, high state test scores may make us proud, but they aren’t fooling anyone else.

Kristen Blair is a fellow at the North Carolina Education Alliance.