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Can improved curriculum boost lagging NAEP results?

Administrators are examining results in hopes of raising student achievement

The results of the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were “encouraging but modest,” according to Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Eighth graders made small gains in reading and mathematics, while fourth graders improved slightly in math but not reading.

Called “the nation’s report card,” the test is a nationally representative measure of trends in student achievement, administered by the Department of Education every two years since 1969. Administrators are now examining state-level results to implement curriculum changes in hopes of raising student achievement.

“There is really no silver bullet to increase student achievement,” says Melissa Mellor, manager of public policy outreach at ASCD, which advocates a holistic approach to education.

The District of Columbia and Tennessee, the only two areas to make significant gains on the test, both benefited from Race to the Top funds, and reforms, such as new teacher evaluation systems. The District of Columbia’s growth ranged from five to seven points on each of the tests, and Tennessee’s ranged from four to seven points. States can earn a total of 500 points on each test.

But the NAEP outcomes alone do not prove reform leads to achievement, Mellor says. “Adopting the Common Core or a new teacher evaluation system on their own won’t do it,” she adds. “It requires sound implementation and connecting these policies to a comprehensive system of support and ongoing improvement.”

Shawnee Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Brent Houston realized students in his Oklahoma district were struggling with reading when he analyzed the NAEP frameworks. The frameworks, available online, describe in detail the knowledge and skills students should gain in a particular subject before taking the test. For example, the reading framework includes the different types of texts and vocabulary that students should learn.

“Data from this and other NAEP reports have influenced our district, particularly at the elementary level,” Houston, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, said in a statement. “We began deploying personnel in a way that would allow us to break students into flex groups to teach specific reading skills. This allowed us to use all of the testing data to determine areas of weakness, and focus teaching strategies to address students’ deficiencies in reading.”

Until the Common Core, there was no specific alignment between the NAEP and state standards. “In theory, we could expect to see scores rise with the Common Core but the important caveat is how they are being implemented,” Mellor says. “Are teachers making the instructional shifts needed to meet these standards, and are students’ other needs being met to allow them to master those expectations?”

Mellor says some districts don’t have the resources to give students the support they need to improve NAEP scores. Schools can draw on community resources to help meet diverse student needs, possibly by finding volunteer tutors for the classroom. They might also connect with social service agencies and nonprofits that provide after-school programming or extra services to students and families in need, Mellor says.