This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Students nationwide showed a marked dip in math performance and a somewhat smaller decline in reading proficiency, according to 2015 results of the only standardized achievement test administered across the country by the federal government.
It was the first reversal of a steady upward trend that held for the more than two decades that U.S. students have been taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
Philadelphia students continue to score below the national average for big cities, according to analysis of the scores from 21 urban areas. Both nationally and in the city, there are huge achievement gaps among racial and ethnic groups.
Here are some key facts on the NAEP and its significance.
What is the NAEP?
The NAEP has been administered since 1990 to a representative sample of the nation’s 4th and 8th graders. (There is also a 12th-grade pilot in several states.) Designed to measure what students know and are able to do, the NAEP, also called the Nation’s Report Card, is considered the benchmark against which to evaluate assessments given by the states. It is also used to compare American students with those in other countries. Like other standardized tests, however, it has its critics.
How is it different from other standardized tests?
NAEP is the only common exam that has been administered nationally and for an extended period. This allows for periodic comparisons across states of how students are doing, and whether they are improving over time, against a single standard. It is not a high-stakes test in that it is not used to evaluate individual students or schools. The NAEP is also considered a more rigorous test than most state exams, like Pennsylvania’s PSSA.
How often is it given and to whom?
Demographically representative samples – not every student – in 4th and 8th grade take the test once every two years. The effort is to get students from district, charter, and private schools so that the sample is truly representative. Results are tabulated nationally and for each state. Private school results are not included in the reporting.
What are the 2015 results and trends?
This year, for the first time since test administration began in 1990, scores showed a dip. In a media call about the results, Peggy Carr, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said: "This isn’t a pattern that we saw coming. It was an unexpected downturn."
At the same time Carr pointed out that the overall scores are still much higher than they were in the 1990s and that it is too soon to draw conclusions about a trend. Another reason suggested for the downturn is that new curricula adopted by many states in the wake of the Common Core standards put what is taught in what grade out of sync with what NAEP measures.
What is the TUDA?
The Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) started in 2002, when six urban districts voluntarily allowed their NAEP results to be disaggregated and analyzed. There are now 21 districts that participate; Philadelphia joined in 2009. TUDA results include only students in district schools, not those in charters.
How did Philadelphia do, and how does it compare to other cities?
Philadelphia students score below the national average, the Pennsylvania average, and the average for big cities in 4th and 8th grade and in both reading and math. Scores in 2015 are not significantly different from the scores six years ago; overall proficiency rates remain low. For instance, just 14 percent of 4th graders scored proficient or advanced in reading and 15 percent in math. Philadelphia’s 4th-grade proficiency rates were in a cluster near the bottom; only Detroit scored significantly lower. For 8th graders, the proficiency rates were 16 percent in reading and 19 percent in math. The comparable numbers for all the large city districts were higher: For 4th grade, reading was 27 percent and math, 32 percent. For 8th grade, both reading and math were 25 percent.
City scores also show wide achievement gaps based on race, ethnicity, and gender. For instance, 17 percent of 4th-grade females, but only 11 percent of males tested as proficient readers. The gender gap in reading scores persisted to 8th grade: 20 percent of females and 12 percent of males were proficient.
Among ethnic groups, gaps were even starker. In 8th-grade math, for example, 56 percent of Asians, 31 percent of Whites, 10 percent of Blacks and 13 percent of Hispanics were proficient in math.
But other than in 4th-grade math, city scores did not decline from two years ago, somewhat bucking the downward national trend.
What does the School District say about the results?
District spokeswoman Raven Hill issued a statement: "Given the lack of fundamental resources that our system and schools confront, we are encouraged about mostly defying downward national and state trends. … The decrease in 4th-grade math scores is an obvious area of concern. Those scores may reflect a misalignment between NAEP and our state Common Core standards. Several tested objectives on NAEP are either sequenced for later grades or not included in the PA Common Core."
What about Pennsylvania?
Pennsylvania’s overall reading and math scores for 4th and 8th graders are slightly above the national average, but there are significant gaps by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.
What has been the reaction to the 2015 NAEP scores?
Advocates, union leaders and others who weighed in agreed that the results are cautionary. This holds true whether they favor testing or not.
Kati Haycock of Education Trust has long promoted No Child Left Behind and tests disaggregated by subgroups to draw attention to the needs of underserved students. She said: “Any way you look at it, today’s NAEP results are sobering. Compared with results from 2013, scores for the nation’s low-income students and students of color mirror those of all other students: mostly flat or declining performance.
“While there may be plausible explanations for these patterns — among them the disruptions caused by the transition to new standards — any interruption of the slow but steady progress these groups have made over the past two decades is cause for great concern."
American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said the scores "should give pause to anyone who still wishes to double down on austerity and make competition, scapegoating teachers, closing rather than fixing schools, fear, and testing and sanctioning the dominant education strategies."
She also blamed poverty and a halt to school desegregation efforts, and called for reduction in testing, focusing on the "whole child," more art and music, wraparound social services, better teacher training, and more community involvement. "High-stakes testing has eclipsed all else. … Our kids have lost the joy of learning and teachers have lost the latitude to be creative as the focus has simply become test scores and their consequences."
Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, a reform group advocating standards and accountability, said in a statement, "A dip in the national average on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is cause for concern, but not alarm. The majority of states actually saw no change in their scores from 2013. However, the decreases for many states in 8th-grade math are unexpected and need a full review.
"It is far too soon for us to have a full understanding of the causes of the score changes; fingers have been pointed at demographics, reform policies, the ongoing implementation of the Common Core State Standards, poverty, and more. It is going to take careful analysis to disentangle and assign weight to the range of possible causes and then determine what local, state, and national responses should be."