The Nation's Report Card

NAEP: Reading Scores Flat at Grade 4, Up Slightly at Grade 8

Despite nearly two decades of policy and investment focused on closing academic achievement gaps and improving overall student achievement, reading scores on the NAEP 2009 assessment among fourth- and eighth-grade students have barely budged since 1992. And between the two most recent assessments (2007 and 2009), fourth-grade scores were flat, while eighth-grade scores increased just one point, returning to 2002's level.

Student reading scores barely moved in the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), otherwise known as "The Nation's Report Card." Scores for fourth graders on the test remained flat in the last two years, while scores for eighth graders increased by a small but statistically significant one point (on a 500-point scale).

NAEP is an ongoing program whose aim is to measure academic achievement trends across a wide variety of disciplines. To date, it has looked to accomplish this by delivering tests to students across the country focusing on reading, writing, math, science, and other subjects. The NAEP Reading 2009 exam itself comprised short essay questions, in which students were asked to write brief responses based on questions focused on sample passages, and multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble questions. It was delivered nationally in 2009 to 178,800 fourth graders and 160,900 eighth graders from a total of 16,560 schools. (Sample questions for both grade levels can be found here.)

Overall results by state. Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Overall Results: 4th and 8th Grade
Since administration of the test began in 1992, eighth-grade scores have increased only four points, or a mere 1.54 percent. While there was a statistically significant improvement in the last two years--when average scores on the 500-point scale increased from 263 in 2007 to 264 in 2009--the increase (which followed a one-point increase in 2007) only compensated for one-point drops experienced in 2003 and 2005, bringing reading scores back to the level seen in 2002.

Fourth-grade scores, meanwhile, have not fared as well. Between 2007 and 2009, there was no increase at all in the average scale reading score. It remained at 221 (again, out of 500). That's up from a low of 213 in the year 2000 but up only four points from the starting score in 1992.

Policy Implications and Test Validity
But how accurate a reflection of the state of student achievement can a standardized test provide?

In an online Q&A, we asked Peggy Carr, associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), to what degree do NAEP results reflect actual student reading achievement in a meaningful way?

She responded by saying that "great effort is devoted to ensuring that NAEP results do reflect actual student achievement, measured in a way that is substantively meaningful." She also responded:

NAEP uses several approaches to ensure that the NAEP reading assessment results are both valid and meaningful. First, the National Assessment Governing Board consults widely with reading experts and state department of education around the country to ensure that the most current reading research is reflected in the content of the reading assessment. Thus the NAEP reading assessment reflects content validity according to experts as well as scientific research on the skills that are required to read well. Second, the NAEP reading assessment includes some multiple-choice questions, but at least half or more of the testing time is devoted to questions that require students to do more than simply choose an answer from a list. Instead, they must construct their own answers that show their ability to develop and interpret the meaning of the written texts in the assessment booklets. Third, NAEP has for many years supported studies of the validity of NAEP's measurement of reading and mathematics. The papers and publications derived from this program of research are available [here].

(For those interested in more etails, the complete NAEP Reading 2009 framework can be found here.)

And policy makers certainly do take the results seriously.

United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan responded to the results saying that they were not good enough and that progress wasn't happening fast enough: "Like the NAEP 2009 math scores released last fall, the reading scores demonstrate that students aren't making the progress necessary to compete in the global economy," he said in a statement released Wednesday.

"We shouldn't be satisfied with these results," he said. "By this and many other measures, our students aren't on a path to graduate high school ready to succeed in college and the workplace."

In a phone meeting with journalists, held Wednesday, Steven Paine, West Virginia state superintendent of schools and member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, said the results further hold implications for the proposed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and for redesigning the curriculum.

"First of all, I think there are tremendous implications for the establishment of a state-led effort to create a very rigorous curriculum, one that reflects more of the types of skills that are embedded in the NAEP assessment, which I think really reflect those higher-level cognitive skills that kids will need as they enter this global [economy]," Paine said. "I also think there are some implications for what we do in our classrooms, in our schools. I think that once that rigorous, common-core curriculum is established, it will be essential for us to invest in the quality of teaching in this country ... so that we have teachers and principals who can rise to the level of the rigor that will be contained in this common core that will be more 'NAEP-like.'"

Some Good News?
Despite mostly gloomy accounts of the release, the 2009 NAEP reading report did show some signs of more significant progress in specific achievement categories. In 2009, a full 75 percent of eighth-grade students performed at or above the level defined as "basic," an increase from 69 percent in 1992 and a statistically significant one-point increase from 2007. Thirty-two percent were at or above the "proficient" level in 2009, up from 29 percent in 1992 and again up a statistically significant single percentage point from 2007. Another 3 percent ranked as "advanced," a figure that has been consistent in every test year from 1992 on.

At the eighth-grade level, nine states saw increases in scores in 2009 compared with 2007, while no states saw declines. However, at the fourth-grade level, while three states showed improvement, four actually experienced declines in test scores.

Gender, Ethnic, and Economic Group Breakdowns
At the fourth-grade level, girls continued to outperform boys in reading, both groups attaining scores identical to those achieved in 2007--224 for girls, 218 for boys. At the eighth-grade level, the situation was similar, but both groups increased their average scale scores by one point in 2009, resulting in a continued 10-point gap (269 for girls, 259 for boys).

Achievement gaps along ethnic lines remained fairly consistent, although there was some reordering of the rankings. For the first time in the test's history, white students at the eighth-grade level were outperformed by another group--Asian/Pacific Islanders. White students actually achieved an all-time high in 2009, coming in at 273. But Asian/Pacific Islanders increased two points over 2007 to come in at 274. The American Indian group saw the largest increase from 2007 to 2009 (four points), coming in at 251. In the same period, Hispanic students increased two points to 249, and black students increased one point to 246.

Students classed as English language learners fell a full four points, to 219, versus 266 for non-ELL students.

Poorer students--those defined as eligible for the National School Lunch Program--increased their scores by two points to 249, coming in 14 points below those who did not qualify for the program--exactly the same gap seen in 2007 between the two groups.

Asians and Pacific Islanders continued their domination of the reading results at the fourth-grade level, gaining three points over 2007 and coming in at 235. White students, in second place, declined by one point from 2007's average score to 231. Hispanic students held firm at 205. The scores of black students rose two points to 205. And American Indian students increased one point to 204.

ELL and non-ELL students remained flat from 2007 to 2009, coming in at 188 and 224, respectively. Based on family income level, students who qualified for the National School Lunch Program averaged 206 points, up a statistically insignificant one point from 2007. Students who did not qualify came in at 232, same as in 2007.

Type of School
Finally, the type of school a student attended did matter. At the fourth-grade level, Catholic schools came out on top, at 236. The category "other private" school followed closely behind at 234. Department of Defense schools came in third at 228. Public schools came in fourth at 220. And schools administered by the Bureau of Indian Education came in at 181.

At the eighth-grade level, "other private" schools topped the list at 282, with Catholic schools coming in a close second at 281. They were followed by Department of Defense schools (272), public schools (262), and Bureau of Indian Education schools (229).

Further information about the NAEP 2009 Reading test, along with complete results, can be found here.