Math scores improve, but reading is flat

Math scores continue to improve modestly for fourth and eighth graders on the “nation’s report card,”and eighth graders inched up in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam for 2011. However, flat reading scores for fourth graders are “deeply disappointing,” said David Driscoll, chair of the National Assessment Governing Board, which develops the exam.

Over 20 years, progress in math has outpaced reading, notes the Christian Science Monitor.

Math scores have risen steadily since 1990. The scores posted a small increase from 2009, the last time the test was given. For fourth-graders, the average math score was 241 on a 500-point scale – 28 points higher than in 1990 and 1 point higher than in 2009. Students at all percentiles except the lowest one increased.

In reading, the progress has been far slower and seems to have stalled out in fourth grade. Students at that level showed no improvement since 2009, and their scores were just four points higher than in 1992. (Eighth-grade scores were one point higher than in 2009 and five points higher than in 1992.)

In both math and reading, one third to 40 percent of students reach what NAEP considers proficiency.

Over 40 years, reading has improved significantly at the fourth-grade level, slightly in eighth grade and not at all in high school, notes Dana Goldstein, who has ideas on how to improve reading instruction.

The math gains show improvement is possible, writes Kevin Carey, who provides fourth-grade math achievement levels over the last 20 years:

In 1990, 50 percent of fourth graders were innumerate, scoring below “basic” in math, Carey writes. Today, that’s down to 18 percent.

The percent of students meeting the much higher “Proficient” standard has more than tripled, from 14 to 47 percent. Unfortunately, those gains seem to fade away in high school, where there has been very little progress over time. But that’s an argument for doing more to improve high schools, which have been, perhaps not coincidentally, largely removed from standards-and-accountability regimes.

States were far more likely to improve scores than to decline, he adds.

Some achievement gaps for minority and low-income students are narrowing, but not fast enough, says Education Trust, which breaks out state results.

Don't know much about history

What’s important about that bearded guy with the stovepipe hat? What advantage did American colonists have over British troops during the Revolutionary War? What country allied with North Korea during the Korean War? American students don’t know much about U.S. history, concludes the Nation’s Report Card 2010. History is the weakest of all subjects tested.

Eighth graders made some progress from 2006 to 2010, while scores were flat at the fourth an 12th-grade level. However, only 17 percent of students score at or above the proficient level.

Since 1994, scores have risen at all three levels. Black and Hispanic fourth and eighth graders have made significant gains since 1994. That’s the good news.

Not so good: Only a third of fourth graders can identify the purpose of the Declaration of Independence.

Two percent of 12th graders can name the social problem — school segregation — that Brown vs. the Board of Education was supposed to correct, even after reading: “We conclude that in the field of public education, separate but equal has no place, separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

While some questions are multiple choice, others require students to write a short response. Frequently, they are asked to interpret maps, pictures, posters, graphs, original documents and quotations, such as explaining the historical context of a slave letter, using a map to explain the purpose of the Lewis and Clark expedition or analyzing a graph of the declining number of farms.

Questions about minorities and women are common: Identify a role of women during the American Revolution. Explain how World War II affected African-Americans’ struggle for civil rights. Study an 1849 picture of a Sioux encampment and identify three ways the Sioux used natural resources.

I had to think about this eighth-grade question:

For centuries, a young man who wanted to learn a craft was apprenticed to a master craftsman who taught him the necessary skills. Why did the apprenticeship system begin to decline in the first half of the 1800′s?

A. The apprenticeship system was considered unsuitable for the increased number of women working outside the home.

B. The growth of the factory system led to a decreased need for skilled labor.

C. Many young men chose to become farmers instead of craftsmen.

D. Craftsmen began to use unskilled immigrant labor in their shops.

(The answer is B.)

You can test yourself at all three grade levels.

Old enough to vote — whatever that is

Civics knowledge has declined for 12th graders, many of whom are old enough to vote, but climbed for fourth graders, according to the new civics report card from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Eighth-grade scores stayed about the same.

Hispanic students made gains, though the racial/ethnic achievement gap remains large.

Students were asked both multiple-choice and constructed-response questions to measure their knowledge of civic life, politics and government and their understanding of citizens’ role in a democracy and the relationship of the U.S. to other nations.

At grade 4, students who scored at or above the Basic level (77 percent) were likely to identify a method used to select public office holders, students scoring at Proficient (27 percent) could identify a purpose of the U.S. Constitution, and students at Advanced (2 percent) could explain two ways a country could deal with a shared problem.

At grade 8, the 72 percent of students who performed at or above the Basic level were likely to identify a right protected by the First Amendment, the 22 percent who performed at or above the Proficient level could recognize a role performed by the Supreme Court, and the 1 percent who scored at the Advanced level could name two actions that citizens could take to encourage Congress to pass a law.

At grade 12, the 64 percent of students who performed at or above the Basic level were likely to interpret a political cartoon, the 24 percent scoring at or above Proficient could define “melting pot” and argue whether or not the phrase applied to the U.S., and the 4 percent scoring at Advanced could compare U.S. citizenship requirements to those of other countries.

Some of the questions appear to test reading and reasoning skills rather than civics knowledge.

Grade 4 sample question:

Cartoon strip. A boy named Calvin says to his father, "I think it's time we had a new dad around here. When does your term of office expire?" Dad responds, "Sorry, Calvin. I was appointed dad for life." Calvin screams, "For life?! What about a recall vote? What about impeachment?" Dad responds, "There are no provisions for either." Calvin asks, "Did you write this constitution yourself, or what?" Dad replies, "Well, your mom helped some, too."

Calvin and Hobbes © 1986 Watterson. Dist. By Universal Press Syndicate.
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

The child in the cartoon strip above is a six-year-old boy named Calvin. What is the main point of the cartoon?

1. Constitutions have rules about how long someone can stay in office.
2. Families and governments are not run the same way.
3. The term of office for elected and appointed officials is different.
4. Calvin does not know how a constitutional government works.

Grade 8 sample question:

In the United States, which civil right belongs only to American citizens?

  1. Freedom of speech
  2. Freedom of assembly
  3. The right to legal representation if charged with a crime
  4. The right to vote in local, state, and national elections

Grade 12 sample question:

Political cartoon showing a man pulling the handle of a large box labeled “The Kick the Bum Out Ballot Box Company.” A large spring extends from the box with a shoe at its end. The shoe is kicking a man holding a briefcase through the air. The caption underneath the cartoon says, “Still the best congressional term-limiting device.

© Pat Oliphant/Universal Press Syndicate

Which of the following best captures the meaning of the cartoon above?

  1. Voters can limit the term of any member of Congress by simply exercising their right to vote.
  2. Term limits can be put in place only through an amendment to the Constitution.
  3. Term limits are needed to prevent incumbents from staying in office for life.
  4. Voters too often throw good people out of office.

No Child Left Behind-mandated reading and math tests are supposed to be crowding out instruction in civics, science and everything else, notes Quick and the Ed’s Kevin Carey. But NAEP shows a different pattern: NAEP scores are improving or holding steady in elementary and middle school, where there’s lots of  NCLB testing, and falling in high school, where there’s only one NCLB-mandated test. He speculates, “it’s hard to learn civics if you can’t read.”

Not so flat

Reading and math achievement have improved significantly in the last 40 years, writes Richard Rothstein on National Journal, countering Bill Gates’ charge that we’re spending more than twice as much with little to show for it. In particular, blacks have narrowed the achievement gap by improving more than whites, Rothstein points out.

Looking at long-term trends for all students on the Nation’s Report Card, nine- and 13-year-olds improved in math till 2004, when scores leveled off.  Scores for 17-year-olds leveled off in 1990. Reading scores from 1971 to 2008  improved significantly for nine-year-olds, improved slightly for 13-year-olds and did not improve for 17-year-olds.

While Rothstein concedes that education spending has doubled in real dollars, “less than half of this new money has gone to regular education (including compensatory education for disadvantaged children, programs for English-language learners, integration programs like magnet schools, and special schools for dropout recovery and prevention). Special education consumed less than 4% of all K-12 spending 40 years ago; it now consumes 21% of education dollars.

Unless No Child Left Behind is modified, 82 percent of U.S. schools could fail to meet “adequate yearly progress” targets next year, estimates Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Currently, 37 percent are failing to meet targets, but many states set achievable goals in the early years in hopes that performance would soar in the final years.  — or that the targets would be lowered.  Duncan’s credibility is under attack — will the number of AYP losers more than double in one year? — but nobody thinks the goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014 is achievable, even with some states defining “proficiency” as “barely literate.” The Obama administration wants to set a new goal: Students will be ready for college or careers by 2020. I don’t believe in that one either. Only the lowest-performing 5 percent would face “turnaround” or “transformation.”

Students struggle with science

Most American students aren’t “proficient” in science, according to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress  (NAEP) report, known as the Nation’s Report Card, released today. Only 34 percent in fourth grade, 30 percent in eighth and 21 percent in 12th grade scored proficient or higher; one percent of high school seniors have the advanced science knowledge and skills that lead to careers in science and technology.

Seventy-two percent of fourth graders, 63 percent of eighth graders, and 60 percent of 12th graders performed at or above the basic level.

Alarming numbers of students are scoring below basic, said Alan Friedman, a member of the board that runs the exam. Forty percent of students in twelfth grade lack even basic skills.

“That means that a double-digit percentage of our students are just nowhere: They’re uncomfortable with science, they don’t understand it, they can’t do it, and they probably don’t like it.”

The science exam was redesigned in 2009 to stress students’ understanding of science concepts and their ability to apply scientific knowledge and solve problems.  Students are tested in physical science, life science, and earth and space sciences. Because of the redesign, NAEP didn’t try to chart trend lines, but Friedman said students’ science mastery is not improving.

Basic students can:

  • Explain the benefit of an adaptation for an organism (grade 4).
  • Relate oxygen level to atmospheric conditions at higher elevations (grade 8).
  • Solve a design problem related to the electric force between objects (grade 12).

Proficient students can:

  • Recognize that gravitational force constantly affects an object (grade 4).
  • Relate characteristics of air masses to global regions (grade 8).
  • Evaluate two methods to help control an invasive species (grade 12).

Advanced students can:

  • Design an investigation to compare types of bird food (grade 4).
  • Predict the Sun’s position in the sky (grade 8).
  • Recognize a nuclear fission reaction (grade 12).

The 2009 PISA results placed U.S. students in the middle of the pack with  Poland, France, and Portugal, well below students in Shanghai, Finland, Hong Kong and Canada.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the U.S. can’t continue as an international science leader without educating more students to higher levels. President Obama has called for recruiting 10,000 new science and math teachers over the next two years. Of course, many schools are laying off teachers — usually by seniority rather than ability to teach math, physics and chemistry.

Asian and white students did much better than blacks and Hispanics, AP notes.

The results also show a stark achievement gap, with only 10 percent of black students proficient in science in the fourth grade, compared to 46 percent of whites. At the high school level, results were even more bleak, with 71 percent of black students scoring below the basic knowledge level, and just 4 percent proficient.

Fifty-eight percent of Hispanic 12th-grade students scored below basic, as did 21 percent of whites.

Boys outscored girls.

Most states in the south and southwest (plus California and Nevada) scored below the national average.

No Child Left Behind has pushed schools to emphasize math and reading over other subjects, Friedman said.

Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust disagreed, saying schools with high reading and math scores also have high science scores.

“Yes, we have to be intentional about science education, and we have to ensure that all schools have working science labs, but you can’t introduce a kid to a science lab and expect them to do well if they can’t read the text,” she said.

Students with wobbly math skills aren’t likely to go far in science either.

Go here for sample questions.

And here’s Ed Sector’s handy NAEP Explainer.

Misreading the reading report card

The national reading report card has been misread, writes Chad Aldeman on The Quick and the Ed.

. . . because NAEP has gradually included more black and Hispanic students, and black and Hispanic students score lower, on average, than white students, the total score doesn’t reflect the true gains made by each group.

. . . Each group has actually made greater gains over time than the overall total. White students increase 11 points, one more than the national average. Black students scored 23 points higher, and Hispanic students were scoring 24 points higher in 2008 than they were in 1975 despite quadrupling in size. In other words, the white-black and white-Hispanic gaps are closing and every group is scoring higher, but the national score is showing more modest improvements because of demographic changes.

He’s got charts!

The worst readers are making the most progress, as I pointed out in an earlier post.

Not much rise in reading scores

Despite gains by low-scoring students, fourth-grade reading scores stayed the same in 2009 and eighth-grade scores rose very slightly, according to the Nation’s Report Card on reading. All racial and ethnic groups improved, but the rising number of low-scoring Hispanic students kept overall scores down. Racial achievement gaps narrowed, but not significantly. Overall, about one third of students reached the proficient level. Two thirds showed basic or better skills, which is an improvement.

No Child Left Behind focused on low achievers, pointed out Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution. That’s who gained. Average scores for the lowest 10 percent of fourth-grade readers improved 16 percent from 2000 to 2009, compared to 2 percent for the best readers.

Math scores have improved much more, notes the New York Times. Why is it so hard to improve reading?

In seeking to explain the lagging reading scores, some experts point to declines in the amount of reading children do for pleasure as they devote more free time to surfing the Internet, texting on cellphones or watching television. Others say undemanding curriculums in reading may be to blame.

For example, Susan Pimentel, an expert on English and reading standards who is a member of the governing board that oversees the test, said that American schools were fairly efficient at teaching basic reading skills in the early grades, but that as students matured they need to be consistently challenged to broaden those skills by reading not only complex literature but also sophisticated nonfiction in subjects like history and science.

“We’re not asking them to read nearly enough, and we’re especially not asking them to read enough complex materials,” Ms. Pimentel said.

Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland and Massachusetts showed the most progress at moving students to the proficient level, while Iowa, Maine, New Mexico and Oklahoma showed declines in reading proficiency.

Florida aced the test, writes Matthew Ladner. The state’s Hispanic fourth graders did as well or better as all students in 30 states; Florida’s black fourth graders outscored or tied eight statewide averages. The state’s eighth graders also did well, “led by big improvements for all the disadvantaged student subgroups.” Ladner credits Florida’s “try everything” strategy, which includes “parental choice, good standards and assessment, accountability, alternative certification, virtual schooling and social promotion curtailment.”

Big-city students are doing better in reading and math, concludes a report by the Council of the Great City Schools, which uses state and NAEP exams.

Update: States vary greatly on how many disabled and English Learner students take the NAEP exams without accommodations, with accommodations or not at all, writes Curriculum Matters.

Better at 9 and 13 but not at 17

Nine- and 13-year-olds are doing better in reading and math since the early 1970s, according to the new Nation’s Report Card analysis of long-term trends by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Seventeen-year-olds are doing about the same.

The racial achievement gap has narrowed since the ’70s, but there’s been little progress from 2004 to 2008. Nine-year-old boys narrowed the reaidng gap with girls.

What counts is what kids know when they finish high school and go into the world, writes Cato’s Andrew Coulson.  The failure to show progress for 17-year-olds represents a “productivity collapse unparalleled in any other sector of the economy.”

At the end of high school, students perform no better today than they did nearly 40 years ago, and yet we spend more than twice as much per pupil in real, inflation-adjusted terms.

Students are taking more challenging math courses than they did a generation ago. You’d think that would pay off in math scores, but it hasn’t yet made a difference at the high school level.

Update: The lowest-achieving students have improved more than the highest achievers in the last four years, narrowing the gap, points out USA Today.