Hot scores

Across the country, fourth and eighth graders are doing better in math according the 2003 scores released today by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Reading scores did not improve. The trends are very good in math, mixed in reading, says this analysis by John Stevens, who’s on the NAEP governing board.

Since the year 2000, the last time the NAEP mathematics assessment was given, the students at the bottom have made the greatest improvement. The largest gains have been achieved by fourth grade students in the lowest 10 percent or the lowest quarter of the test score distribution. The lower-scoring students in the 8th grade also have made substantial improvements.

In just three years, the proportion of black fourth graders reaching the Basic achievement level in mathematics rose from 36 to 54 percent nationwide. Among Hispanic students, whose number has increased enormously, the proportion reaching Basic in fourth grade math rose from 42 percent in 2000 to 62 percent in 2003.

The overall picture is encouraging because not only did the lower-scoring groups improve, but higher-scoring students made gains too, although at a somewhat slower rate. This means that the gaps in math have diminished in the past three years—between the highest tenth and lowest tenth and between different racial groups. Nobody has been “held back” so somebody else can improve.

In reading, unfortunately, the situation is less clear.

. . . It is important that the gains made in fourth grade reading from 1998 and 2000 to 2002 have been sustained. And here again the greatest improvements were made at the lower end of the test score distribution and among black and Hispanic students, whose performance historically has lagged.

Eighth grade reading scores have been up and down. There’s no evidence of sustained, significant progress.

Math learning is very dependent on what goes on in school, Stevens points out. Reading is much more related to students’ family experiences and cultural expectations. The rising number of test takers who aren’t fluent in English also depresses scores.

Education Trust, which focuses on achievement gaps between black, Latino and white students, finds hope in fourth grade reading: Non-Asian minority kids are narrowing the gap. In eighth grade math, achievement is up for all students; blacks and Latinos are doing better but aren’t catching up to whites and Asians.

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  1. GREAT summary. I tend to focus on one state at a time and forget to present the “Big Picture”. You do a great job of that.

  2. Steve LaBonne says:

    Anybody tempted to get too excited should use Joanne’s link to have a look at some of the 8th-grade questions. The level of mathemetical skill being tested at that grade is, shall we say, less than impressive.

  3. Walter E. Wallis says:

    If these gains are at the expense of ethnic pride, is it worth it?

  4. Impressive or not, if those are the same questions that were asked perviously, than we are measuring a gain.

  5. I can’t help wondering if the scores have actually gone up or if the standards have gone down once more.

  6. If math learning is dependent on what is going on in the schools, and reading related to family experiences, as John Stevens points out to help explain the scores, then boy, did I make the right decision. My oldest daughter attended public school only during the first grade. During that time her math skills declined tremendously, although her reading skills showed improvement. We promptly re-enrolled her in private school the next year. She’s in third grade now, and doing very well in all subjects.

  7. NAEP is all about measuring long-term trends, so they work hard to make scores comparable over time. The big change is that all states now have to participate; before NCLB some states didn’t let their students be tested. And NAEP is testing more frequently than in the past.

    By the way, NAEP is often criticized for setting unrealistically high standards. Many students are classified as “below basic” in skills; few reach the “advanced” or even “proficient” level. NAEP also tests adult literacy. The results can be quite depressing.

  8. Steve LaBonne says:

    Yes, I had vaguely assumed the NAEP standards were fairly high based on that sort of buzz. That’s why I was shocked by what I would estimate as the the (at best) 6th grade level of the “8th grade” math questions. I can only conclude that the math education situation is even worse than I realized.

    Here’s a sample of the sort of thing that blew me away:

    9. Carla has 12 boxes that each weigh the same amount. What would be a quick way for her to find the total weight of the 12 boxes?
    A) Add 12 to the weight of one of the boxes.
    B) Subtract 12 from the weight of one of the boxes.
    C) Divide the weight of one of the boxes by 12.
    D) Multiply the weight of one of the boxes by 12.

    That’s 8th grade math?? Holy cow.

  9. dave'swife says:

    2 years ago, NC math scores for 5th went up and was surpassed only by the test scores from Texas. At least, that’s what I read. At the time, we had a 5th grader, so it piqued our interest. We found, in a conversation w/ one of the school admin’s later in the summer that the test was not any more difficult and no, it did not change to accomodate the low performing students like everyone thought. The reason every 5th grader at this school had passed the test was b/c the passing grade itself was lowered. Meaning one could score a lower grade than the year b/f and still pass. The test didn’t change, the degree of difficulty didn’t change, the score needed to pass changed. But, hey – every 5th grader passed, so what’s the big deal?


  10. Steve, that isn’t 8th grade math. But if all the questions were at 8th grade level, you’d really have only a pass/fail situation. They want to get more use out of the data than that. Ideally, questions would range from very easy to very hard. That way, they could calculate, for example, how many kids in 8th grade are operating only at 4th grade level.

  11. Steve LaBonne says:

    Well, please look at that site and find me the “hard” questions! Here’s an “algebra” question from thne 8th grade test:

    17.  If n represents an even number greater than 2, what is the next larger even number?
    A)  n + 1
    B)  2n + 1
    C)  2n
    D)  n + 2
    E)  n2
    And here’s one marked “8(12)” so I guess it’s supposed to be really “advanced”:

     18.  If 3 + w = b, then w =
    A)  b/3
    B)  b ¥ 3
    C)  b + 3
    D)  3 – b
    E)  b – 3
    We’re setting the bar awfully low, and even against that low standard the results are basically pitiful (even if infinitesimally less pitiful than the last time the test was given.) I’m depressed.

  12. Here’s an 8th grade one from the list. It’s a little better. You have to set up 2 equations with 2 variables, and it’s not multiple choice.

    While she was on vacation, Tara sent 14 friends either a letter or a postcard. She spent $3.84 on postage. If it costs $0.20 to mail a postcard and $0.33 to mail a letter, how many letters did Tara send?

    Show what you did to get your answer.

    Did you use the calculator on this question?
    Yes or No

  13. Here’s another 8th grade one. I mean, this isn’t rocket science, but it’s a little better than 3 + w = b.

    This question requires you to show your work and explain your reasoning. You may use drawings, words, and numbers in your explanation. Your answer should be clear enough so that another person could read it and understand your thinking. It is important that you show all your work.
    9. Treena won a 7-day scholarship worth $1,000 to the Pro Shot Basketball Camp. Round-trip travel expenses to the camp are $335 by air or $125 by train. At the camp she must choose between a week of individual instruction at $60 per day or a week of group instruction at $40 per day. Treena’s food and other expenses are fixed at $45 per day. If she does not plan to spend any money other than the scholarship, what are all choices of travel and instruction plans that she could afford to make? Explain your reasoning.