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Data, Data Everywhere

Results from Nation's Report Card show slow progress.

The 2005 Nation's Report Card, a large sample, fifty-state assessment of reading and math achievement among fourth and eighth grade students, provides cause for cautious optimism. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings touts steady gains among American students and says the results demonstrate that schools are on the right track. Math achievement scores rose to the highest level in 15 years for both fourth and eighth grade students. Eighty percent of fourth graders and 69 percent of eighth graders performed at or above the basic level in math, up from 50 percent and 52 percent in 1990.

The large scale report card also points to some causes for concern. Reading scores, for example, are fairly flat. Fourth grade scores reflect the massive investment in early reading, but eighth grade results indicate a need to focus on the higher level comprehension skills required for continued achievement, states Cathy Roller, director of research and policy for the International Reading Association. Sixty-four percent of fourth graders scored at the basic level, gaining an average one point between 2003 and 2005. On the other hand, average eighth grade reading scores dropped one point on the 0 to 500 point scale between 2003 and 2005.

"These results make it clear that too little attention is given to complex reading. The fourth grade results [are] welcome news, but reflect a NAEP more focused in basic skills than the higher-level reading comprehension tested today. If we want students to be sophisticated users of text, reading instruction must focus on the complex reading skills needed for participation in today' society," opines Roller.

According to Spellings, increased progress by Hispanic and African-American students is driving gains on the test. Black, Hispanic and lower-income students are gaining on their peers, but a significant gap remains. The math results for minority students and children in poverty remain unacceptably low, argues Cathy Seeley, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The math score gap between whites and blacks is 31 points in fourth grade and 33 points in eighth grade. In reading, the gaps between whites and black and Hispanic students narrowed in both fourth and eighth grade, and free- and reduced-lunch students realized a two point average increase between 2003 and 2005.

Math under a Microscope

The 2005 data for math performance is quite positive. The national average fourth grade math scale score sits at 238, up three points from 2003 and 25 points from 1990. In eighth grade, the average score rose to 279, a one point increase since 2003 and a 16 point increase since 1990. Scores among black and Hispanic students rose at both grade levels; 60 percent of black fourth graders and 68 percent of Hispanic fourth graders ranked at or above basic. Despite the gains among minority students the results point to a persistent achievement gap. Among whites, 90 percent of fourth graders' scores earned them a basic or above status.

Only 42 percent of black and 52 percent of Hispanic fourth graders scored at or above basic compared to 80 percent of their white peers. The score gap between white and black fourth graders narrowed to 26 points, down from 34 in 1996; and the gap between whites and Hispanics dropped to 20 points, down from a high of 27 in 2000.

Eighth grade scores were slightly less promising and showed a narrowing, but still significant, gap. The gap between whites and blacks fell from 41 points in 1996 to 34 in 2005, and the gap between white and Hispanic students dropped from 30 in 1996 to 27 in 2000.

Seeley says eradicating the gap requires a three-pronged approach. Teachers need to focus on student engagement and give kids good problems to solve instead of merely telling students how to do math. A balanced curriculum that combines understanding, doing and using math provides a sound foundation for engagement, says Seeley. Finally, investing in teachers through professional development that addresses both mathematics knowledge and teaching strategies can help low-achieving students reach their potential, says Seeley.

Although math scores are rising, the current rate of acceleration may not suffice to reach the NCLB goal of 100 percent proficiency in 2014. State-proficiency standards differ from NAEP benchmarks, but if the 20 percent of fourth graders and 31 percent of eighth graders with below basic NAEP scores are used as rough estimates of proficiency it's clear that these students require accelerated progress to meet NCLB goals, says Spellings.

Reading Review

NAEP scores in both math and reading prove what most educators know. That is, reaching 100 percent reading proficiency by 2014 will require a massive amount of effort. Thirty-six percent of fourth grade students and 27 percent of eighth grade students scored below basic on the 2005 reading tests. Moreover, scores have remained fairly stagnant since 1992.

In 1992, the average fourth grade reading score sat at 217. The 2005 score improved two points to 219. The average eighth grade score nudged up from 260 to 262 in the same 13-year period.

Although higher percentages of white, black, Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islanders fourth graders performed at or above basic and at or above proficient in 1992 than in 2005, the score gap decreased only slightly--three points between white and black students and one point for white and Hispanic students. Score gaps between eighth grade students remained fairly constant as well, dropping a mere two points between whites and blacks and one point between whites and Hispanics.

The data reveals minimal gains among free and reduced lunch students. This year, 46 percent of free and reduced lunch fourth graders scored at or above basic. Average scores for eligible students rose two points between 2003 and 2005. The percentage of eligible fourth graders performing at or above proficient rose three points between 1998 (the first year NAEP collected eligibility data) and 2003. Eighth grade data has remained fairly constant with no significant differences between 1998 and 2005.

Roller says gaps can be eliminated with strong leadership and a commitment to strategies that work including a focus on sophisticated comprehension skills and writing. Best practices include across-the-board professional development to help high school teachers understand the comprehension demands of the various subject areas.

Such value-added methodologies can help schools achieve a measurable level of growth in cohorts of kids, says Roller. These strategies may not ensure the absolute proficiency, but can help drive significant yearly progress. "If I were a superintendent, I'd put my dollars towards building sophisticated comprehension at the fourth to twelfth grade level," sums Roller.

Erasing Gender Gaps?

The Nation's Report Card reveals fairly slim differences between the math achievement levels of girls and boys in both fourth and eighth grade. Fourth grade boys' average scale score was 239, compared to 237 for girls. The two point differential remained at eighth grade; boys attained an average scale score of 280 and girls' average was 278. The differential has remained fairly constant since 1996.

Girls did outperform their male counterparts in reading. Sixty-seven percent of fourth grade girls performed at or above the basic level in fourth grade; sixty-one percent of boys reached the same level. In eighth grade, 78 percent of girls reached the basic or above level compared to 68 percent of boys. There is good news for males. Fourth grade reading scores have risen slightly since 1992, and the percentage of eighth males performing at or above basic has increased since 1992.

NAEP at the District Level

The Nation's Report Card provides a wealth of information that administrators can use to inform data-driven decision-making. Administrators can go online to view NAEP questions, student responses and public scoring guides. Other online goodies include item maps that illustrate the knowledge and skills demonstrated at various scoring levels on the assessments. The NAEP Questions tool provides achievement information about questions from all NAEP subjects, including data about how students from different regions, school classifications and demographic groups responded to questions from a variety of content areas and levels of difficulty.

Lisa Fratt is a contributing editor.

A NAEP Primer

NAEP places students into one of three achievement levels

Basic--denotes partial mastery of the knowledge and skills fundamental for proficient work at a given grade

Proficient--represents solid academic performance. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter

Advanced--signifies superior performance

NAEP: Just the Facts

The Nation's Report Card 2005 details achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress administered to fourth and eighth grade students nationwide. More than 165,000 fourth-grade students and 159,000 eighth-grade students participated in the reading assessment, and 172,000 fourth-grade students and 162,000 eighth graders took part in the math assessment. State policy makers can use the results as a yardstick to check their systems and provide a rough estimate of the gap between current achievement and No Child Left Behind requirements.

Test results for both reading and math are reported at basic, proficient and advanced achievement levels set by the National Assessment Governing Board. Scores are reported on a 0 to 500 point scale.