University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Crossing Our Fingers Didn’t Work…

In The View from the OEP on October 31, 2019 at 4:00 pm


When the disappointing 2017 NAEP results came out, we said, “We have our fingers crossed that the changes laid out in ESSA will make a big difference to student learning in Arkansas, and look forward to seeing NAEP results again in 2019”.

Well, NAEP results were released yesterday, and Arkansas’ scores look about the same as they did in 2015 and 2017. NAEP is administered nationally to a representative sample of students from all 50 states, so acts as a standard measure of student performance across states and time. We present NAEP performance since 2003, when administration became consistent. We dug into the new results and are pleased to share six NAEP nuggets with you.

NAEP Nugget #1: Not Bouncing Back

Arkansas’ 2019 NAEP scores were essentially unchanged from the past two administrations.  Unfortunately, this is not great news because we were all hoping 2015 and 2017 were just blips that we would bounce back from. In fact, as the figure below highlights, Arkansas scores were the highest in 2011 and 2013, and demonstrate declines since.

Figure 1: Arkansas NAEP Scores, 2003-2019


NAEP Nugget #2: Not Keeping Up With the Neighbors

4th and 8th grade Math scores are lower than those of Arkansas’ border states (this group includes Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas).  This is particularly a bummer in 4th grade because we outperformed them from 2005 to 2013, and while the border states’ average scores are rising, Arkansas’ are declining. It’s also a bummer because we seem to be falling farther and farther behind.

Figure 2: 4th grade NAEP Mathematics Scores, Arkansas, Border States, and US, 2003-2019


Figure 3: 8th grade NAEP Mathematics Scores, Arkansas, Border States, and US, 2003-2019


NAEP Nugget #3: In the Same Boat in Reading

4th and 8th grade Reading scores are also lower than those of Arkansas’ border states, but we seem to be tracking the national performance pattern. Again, this is particularly a bummer in 4th grade because we outperformed them from 2003 to 2013.

Figure 4: 4th grade NAEP Reading Scores, Arkansas, Border States, and US, 2003-2019


When it comes to 8th grade reading, scores decreased for Arkansas, our border states, and the nation as a whole. In fact, students in 31 states performed worse in 8th grade reading than they did in 2017.

Figure 5: 8th grade NAEP Reading Scores, Arkansas, Border States, and US, 2003-2019


NAEP Nugget #4: Widening Gaps for Students in Poverty

Score gaps between Arkansas students eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch and their peers who are not eligible continued to widen in 2019 due to decreased performance of at-risk groups and/ or increased performance of other students.  Gaps in 8th grade mathematics and reading between FRL and Non-FRL students are greater than they have been since 2003.

Figure 6: FRL and Non-FRL Eligible Students’ 8th grade NAEP Mathematics, Arkansas, 2003-2019



NAEP Nugget #5: This is GOOD news! 

Hispanic students are closing the gap to their White peers in both 4th and 8th grade reading! Score gaps between the groups in mathematics remain consistent.

Figure 7: Hispanic and White Students’ 4th grade NAEP Reading, Arkansas, 2003-2019


Gaps between Black and White student scores remain large and persistent in both content areas at 4th and 8th grade.

NAEP Nugget #6: Mixed Messages

Proficiency rates on NAEP math and reading assessments are lower than on ACT Aspire, Arkansas’ assessment used to measure student achievement. Math proficiency rates on NAEP are about 20 percentage points lower than on ACT Aspire.  Reading proficiency rates were around 30% on NAEP, but 45% of 4th graders and 53% of 8th graders were determined proficient on the ACT Aspire.

Figure 8: Arkansas NAEP Proficiency vs. ACT Aspire Proficiency, Math and Reading, 4th and 8th grade, 2019


National assessments like NAEP provide a common measuring stick for student performance, which is particularly important as Arkansas is the only state administering ACT Aspire statewide in grades 3-10. We need to pay careful attention to the differences between the NAEP and ACT Aspire proficiency rates. Arkansas will be administering ACT Aspire for at least seven more years, and when we send and receive conflicting messages about how well our students are performing, it can make it difficult to determine how well our students are doing and which sorts of educational interventions are making a difference for our students.

Three measures of Arkansas’ academic achievement (NAEP, ACT Aspire, and ACT) are all essentially flat at the state level over the past 3 to 4 years.

During this time the state has consistently increased per pupil funding, invested in literacy training, re-created school accountability systems, moved to universal ACT testing for juniors, refocused teacher and principal evaluation, and much more. Maybe we haven’t allowed enough time to see the results of the changes we have been making in education.  Or maybe those changes aren’t really having an impact at the school level.  Or maybe the changes ARE working and these measures just aren’t capturing the improvement.

Or maybe we need to step back, and look at school-level growth instead of statewide achievement to see something worth cheering about!

If you haven’t checked out this year’s OEP awards you should!  There is some GOOD news.



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