University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

NAEP – The Nation’s Report Card

In The View from the OEP on February 2, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Researchers at the OEP are working away this beautiful Groundhog Day on an Arkansas Education Report that analyzes Arkansas student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Not only does the analysis show the most recent information, it also highlights trends over the last two decades. There are a number of tests that assess academic progress–it is sometimes hard to know which tests should hold the most weight. Based on the evidence, those of us at the OEP would emphatically say the NAEP is your best bet.  

Before we release next week’s report, we wanted to take a moment to describe what the NAEP is and why it is our most reliable source of information on statewide student achievement.

What is the NAEP?

According to the  National Center for Educational Statistics, the NAEP is the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas. Unlike state benchmark exams which differ from state to state, these assessments are administered uniformly using the same sets of test booklets across the nation. Students are tested in the 4th, 8th–and more recently–12th grade. Assessments are conducted periodically in math, reading, science, writing, the arts, civics, economics, geography and U.S. History.

So why should we trust that the NAEP is a reasonable assessment (other than of course, that we say so). Well there are a couple of reasons. Ahem, allow me:

The NAEP Enables us to Make Apples-to-Apples Comparisons among States and across Time

As previously mentioned, the NAEP is administered using uniform tests and test booklets across the nation.  Consequently, the NAEP makes it possible to compare states using a common metric rather than trying to determine the relative performance of students using state benchmark assessments that greatly differ. Furthermore the assessment stays essentially the same from year to year. When changes do occur, they only do so with extensive documentation. As a result, education observers can get a clear picture of student progress over time.

The NAEP is independently Administered and Developed

Unlike state benchmark assessments, the NAEP is not tied to state accountability requirements and are therefore not associated with  “high-stakes” consequences. Furthermore, there are no particular incentives for NAEP developers to see either an increase or decrease on test scores. The NAEP is not subject to the volatility associated with changing political administrations and trends. The NAEP is developed and overseen by a governing board and by external groups that include representatives from each state and jurisdiction that participate in the NAEP program. There is no incentive for these organizations to tweek the NAEP to be more sympathetic to one set of students or another. For example, there is no particular benefit to the NAEP developers if  students in Arkansas–or students in any other state for that matter–perform well or not on the NAEP. That same arms-length objectivity is not a characteristic of state developed exams–where policymakers no doubt prefer high passage rates to  low passage rates. We all remember when Mississippi was highlighted and publicly shamed for boasting the highest proficiency rate in the US  on its own statewide exam while fewer than 1/5 of Mississippi students were able to pass the NAEP exam.  The state had set standards so low that almost anyone could meet the proficiency  bar–even individuals who guessed at random.

This Mississippi example is only the most extreme one that points to the obvious reasons to pay more attention to the results of NAEP,  an organization with no dog in the accountability or public relations fight.

The NAEP tests to a more Rigorous Standard

And speaking of proficiency standards, the NAEP standards for proficiency are higher than most standards created by individual states. The developers have meticulously determined the NAEP scale equivalent of state grade 4 reading standards for proficient performance (multiple times actually). The most recent analysis shows Arkansas’ proficiency cut score is at about the middle of the pack among the states. However, the proficiency cut score on the Arkansas Benchmark Exam would still place students Below Basic on the NAEP exams on 4th grade reading. Our standards are slightly higher for Math. The cut score for proficiency on the Arkansas benchmarks is the equivalent of Basic status on the NAEP.

In conclusion, the NAEP provides a more stable, reliable, and comparable score than other educational assessments. Students are tested to higher standards which give us a clearer indicator of student academic progress. For data lovers-which if you haven’t noticed, we are–the NAEP provides a different and–in many ways–more beneficial perspective on student performance. Stay tuned for our Arkansas Education Report that analyzes the last two decades of NAEP data for Arkansas students.

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