Every four years the National Assessment of Academic Progress (NAEP) gives essentially the same test it has given since 1971, to representative samples of U.S. 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds. The results say a lot about whether U.S. students are making real progress. This morning, the 2008 “long-term NAEP” results came out, and there’s good news and bad news.
The good news is that U.S. 9-year-olds have improved in both reading and math, in some cases very substantially. Their average scale scores rose 4 points in both reading and math from 2004, and they gained much more — 12 points in reading and 24 points in math — since the tests were first given in the early 1970s.
In addition, black and Hispanic 9-year-olds have made even more progress than their white counterparts since the early 1970s, narrowing the achievement gap some 10-20 points.
The bad news is two-part. The first is that there has been no closing of the racial achievement gaps for any age group since 2004. The gaps have narrowed significantly since 1971, but not at all since 2004. This may be viewed as an indictment of No Child Left Behind (or of anything else pundits want to indict today), but it’s pretty stark. Despite all the attention and all the rhetoric, those gaps haven’t budged in four years.
The second piece of bad news may get less attention. It shouldn’t.
The second is that 17-year-olds have not improved significantly, in reading or math, since the tests began. (There was an increase in 17-year-old reading scores from 2004 to 2008, but that was just a partial recovery from a decline in 2004.) That means more than 35 years of stagnant performance for U.S. high school seniors in reading and math. In addition, there has been no narrowing of the achievement gap.
What does this test ask 17-year-olds to do? Unlike our state tests, the NAEP tests are graded on a continuous scale, from 0 to 500, such that 19-year-olds are expected to score higher than 13-year-olds, who score higher than 9-year-olds. At Level 250, then, students are asked to “locate and organize information” in relatively lengthy reading passages, “recognize paraphrases of what they have read,” and “make inferences and reach generalizations about main ideas and the author’s purpose from passages dealing with literature, science and social studies.” At this level, NAEP says, students show they can “search for specific information, interralate ideas and make generalizations. ” Eighty percent of U.S. 17-year-olds performated at or above level 250 in 2008.
But what happens at Level 300, when students are asked to “understand complicated literary and informational passages,” and “analyze and integrate less familiar material about topics they study at school”? And when they must “provide reactions to and explanations of the text as a whole”? Just 39 percent of 17-year-olds scored at 300 or above, demonstrating their “ability to find, understand, summarize and explain relatively complicated information.”
At Level 350, only 6 percent of U.S. 17-year-olds are still on the ladder. At this level and above they can” extend and restructure the ideas presented in specialized and complex texts,” such as scientific material, essays and historical documents. They must also demonstrate that they “understand links between ideas even when those links are not explicitly stated, and make appropriate generalizations.” In other words, they are ready for college-level work.
There are descriptions for five different levels of math performance as well. Ninety-six percent of 17-year-olds performed at or above level 250 in math, meaning they had no problem applying “whole number addition and subtraction skills to one-step word problems and money situations.” They can also multiply and use information from charts and graphs.
But at level 350, they must “apply a range of reasoning skills to solve multistep problems.” In addition, they must solve problems involving fractions and percents, do basic geometry and work with exponents and square roots, as well as solve linear equations and inequalities.” And the percentage of 17-year-olds at this level and above? As in reading, just 6 percent. Frankly, this isn’t even advanced math.
NAEP took a look at what was associated with higher math scores. The main thing their analysts found was that students who were enrolled in pre-calculus or calculus had higher average scores than those who took a second year of algebra or trigonometry, and students who only went up to pre-algebra scored worse. This sounds sort of obvious–the stronger math students take pre-calc or calculus and do better on tests. But there is no calculus on these tests. It may not be the specific skills students need as much as the challenge, or the assumption that they should be doing higher level work. Shouldn’t most 17-year-olds be beyond pre-algebra?
Why are so many students still at these lower math and reading levels? And most importantly, what are we going to do about it?