Today, the US Department of Education published results from the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Performance (NAEP). Known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” NAEP is administered every two years to a representative sample of students in each state. NAEP results are help policymakers identify trends in student performance and offer the ability to make comparisons of school performance across states.
While very useful, one must be extremely careful before using NAEP test results to draw broad policy conclusions. A few things to keep in mind:
- NAEP assesses a different cohort of students each year, so the 4th grade cohort in 2003 might differ from the 4th grade cohort tested in 2017. Even though both cohorts were representative of the student body at that time, the share of students from low-income families or for whom English is not their first language might have changed.
- Related to the point above, changes in trends for all students can mask trends for different student cohorts. In many states, overall performance has plateaued even though performance of white students and students of color has improved. Seems paradoxical. But if the share of lower-performing subgroups is becoming a greater share of the total student population, total performance may look flat even though achievement levels of all subgroups are improving.
- Remember that correlation is not causation. Just because some policy happened (or didn’t happen) during the time that NAEP scores increased (or decreased) does not necessarily mean that policy is good (or bad).
- Beware those who claim that low proficiency levels on NAEP are evidence that our schools are “broken.” Scoring “proficient” on NAEP is not synonymous with performing “at grade level” – it is a much higher standard.
- Cross-state comparisons of student achievement levels should take into account demographic differences. While North Carolina should aspire to Massachusetts-levels of student performance, North Carolina’s higher share of students of color, English language learners, and students from low-income families make it more difficult for North Carolina to reach the same level of achievement.
With those caveats in place, below are a few observations from the 2017 results: Read more