By David Casalaspi
In late October, the National Center for Education Statistics released the results of the 2015 National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP), a nationally-administered exam often referred to as the “Nation’s Report Card.” The NAEP is administered every two years to a sample of 4th and 8th graders in each state. Students are tested in reading and mathematics (along with science or writing depending on the year), earning scores between 0 and 500 points on each test. The exam is designed to provide a rough estimate of how U.S. students are performing academically, and the score releases are always the subject of much fanfare and discussion among education researchers and policymakers.
Scores Down Nationally
Coming on the heels of almost two decades of slow but steady improvement, this year’s results were surprising to many and disheartening to almost everyone. Scores dipped nationwide from 2013 levels in every subject except 4th-grade reading, which held steady. This was also the first time since the test began being widely administered in 1990 that math scores have fallen. Additionally, the portion of students who scored “proficient” or above – that is, those who demonstrated “solid academic performance” and “competency” in the given subject area – remained small. In 4th– and 8th-grade math, only 40% and 33% of students scored proficient respectively. In 4th– and 8th-grade reading, only 36% and 34% of students scored proficient. Given the national emphasis on these two subjects since the 2002 enactment of No Child Left Behind, these results are especially disconcerting.
Michigan Is Doing Even Worse
The NAEP provides comprehensive results for all fifty states, and the score report revealed that Michigan has continued to perform statistically significantly below the national average in all subjects and grades except 8th-grade reading, where Michigan scored right at the U.S. average (264). In 4th-grade math and reading, Michigan trailed the U.S. average by 4 points and 5 points respectively. In 8th-grade math, Michigan closed the gap slightly, coming in just 3 points below the U.S. average after performing 4 points below the U.S. average in 2013.
Similarly, the percentage of Michigan students scoring “proficient” or above on the 2015 exam remained significantly below the national average. In 4th– and 8th-grade math, only 34% and 29% of students respectively were deemed proficient (compared to 40% and 33% nationally). And in 4th– and 8th-grade reading, only 29% and 33% of students were deemed proficient (compared to 36% and 34% nationally).
While the Michigan NAEP scores are discouraging, a bittersweet comfort can be found in the fact that the majority of states experienced declines on this year’s test administration. In fact, a whopping thirty-two states experienced score declines on both the 4th– and 8th-grade math exams, and nine states experienced declines on both the 4th– and 8th-grade reading exams. Only one state (Nebraska) showed improvement on both math exams, and only five states (Arizona, Indiana, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Wisconsin) accomplished this feat on both reading exams. No state showed improvement on all four exams.
While we often lament test scores, we should recognize that NAEP has generally shown slow but steady national improvement over the past ten years. In Michigan, however, scores have for the most part stagnated or even dipped slightly over this same period. Only in 8th-grade reading has Michigan appeared to match national trends. The recent drop in 8th-grade scores represents a return to 2005 levels.
It is too early to say if this recent drop in national and state test scores is part of a long-term trend or just a minor fluctuation. But given the heightened attention given to school reform by state and federal policymakers over the past decade, any sign of stagnation or diminished performance is discouraging and sure to result in calls for even more dramatic reforms to meet the educational crisis. Many of these fresh demands will probably be overreactions, though, and it will be imperative for policymakers to keep these results in perspective and remain focused on the long, steady work needed to bring genuine reform to schools.
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