NAEP Trend Reveals Failure and Success

K-12 Testing

The summer release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) long-term trend report for math and reading at ages 9, 13 and 17 brought cheers as scores rose in math at ages 9 and 13 and reading at age 9; the racial gaps separating African Americans and Hispanics from whites also narrowed on those tests. The Bush administration even tried to credit the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, though it has taken effect too recently to have made any difference.


Lost in the praise, however, were more sobering assessments of the results.


For all racial groups at age 17, gains were flat to negative, despite (or because of) the growing use of state graduation exams. Reading scores at age 13 also showed no gain. Some racial gaps have widened.


NAEP score gains for younger students have often been viewed as an unquestioned good, but questions about the deeper meaning are rarely asked. Some analysts, for example, have pointed out that the math score increases may be due primarily to rote learning, especially in the early grades, that is unaccompanied by stronger conceptual understanding or the ability to apply math. If so, these gains are unlikely to lead to corresponding gains in more advanced math in the long run.


Further, the gains may have come at the expense of other learning as subjects such as science, social studies, art and physical education are reduced or even eliminated in the push to boost test scores. A school that focuses too narrowly on reading and math should show increased scores on those subjects, but repeated national studies make clear that parents, communities, colleges and employers all expect a great deal more than teaching two subjects.


These issues will surface again when the state-level NAEP reading and math scores are released this fall. They strike to a deeper concern: the test-and-punish, silver-bullet approach to school reform is producing minimal if any improvements in some subjects at a high cost in other areas of learning. The focus on testing also obscures the possibility that other approaches to educational improvement might have significantly better results with far fewer toxic side effects.



 - More detailed FairTest comments on the NAEP report are at - go to 'what's new' for Aug. 29.