What does the nation's 2015 report card really mean?
The recently released National Assessment
of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores for 2015 have been the subject of much discussion. But how should these results be interpreted – and what do they mean for the most vulnerable student groups like those receiving special education, or English language learners? Let’s take a closer look.
What is the nation's report card (NAEP)?
Commonly known as the “nation’s report card,” the annual National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a research project by the Department of Education that seeks to measure students’ educational attainment nationwide. The assessment tracks students at different grade levels using three benchmarks of achievement: basic, proficient, and advanced. Because the frameworks for setting these benchmarks are developed independently of changing state education standards, and because the scores have no direct consequences for school accountability, it generally is considered a more consistent and reliable test whose results can be compared over longer time periods.
Reading scores resistant to improvement
Most media coverage of the 2015 results has focused on the disappointing drop in math scores, down by one to two points (in fourth and eighth grades, respectively) from 2013 after having risen by a total of 27 points over the last quarter-century. But despite many attempts to connect them to recent changes in education policy, the NAEP has repeatedly stressed that such small variations in scores from one assessment cycle to the next cannot be reliably used to establish causal relationships. What the NAEP scores do show, however, should be an even larger concern for educators. Over the same time period that math scores were consistently rising, reading scores have been much more resistant to improvement, having increased only by six points total. When examined in this context, the story of students’ reading performance appears to be one of stagnation largely unaffected by major shifts in education initiatives and curriculum requirements that have taken place over the last 25 years.
Widening achievement gap for below basic students
While both math and reading scores among 12th graders appear to be unchanged from 2013, digging beneath the averages uncovers a trend of diverging extremes. In both math and reading, high scores at the advanced level masked significant declines in the scores of the ‘below basic’ group, while the proportion of students falling into this lowest-performing group increased by 3 percent in both subjects. This mirrors a similarly worrying trend at the fourth and eighth grade levels, which also saw a rise in the number of students scoring at the lowest level. Overall, previous demographic disparities remain unchanged, apart from an increase in average math scores among students identified as English-learners.
Scores impacted by students with disabilities and English language learners
In fact, the most likely candidate for one of these confounding variables is a shift in the demographics of students who are taking the test in the first place.
- The proportion of English-learners (including many Hispanic students) within the overall student population has steadily been increasing.
- The number of students diagnosed with learning disabilities has also increased at the same time that more of these students are now able to take the test, thanks to expanded criteria for inclusion and greater availability of accommodations.
- Schools across the country have reduced dropout rates, with the US graduation rate reaching a record high of 82% in 2014.
The result of all of these trends is that more students from lower-performing demographic groups who would previously have been excluded are now being tested, leading to a higher proportion of low scores.
Seeking more significant change for the lowest-performing students
What we can conclude from the trends highlighted above is that student demographics continue to be a major factor predicting reading performance at all grade levels, and that the best way to raise NAEP reading scores would be to focus specifically on raising the scores of the lowest-performing groups. When it comes to students with disabilities, previous research has shown that their reading struggles almost always result from more deep-seated difficulties in language processing in their brains. For students from poverty, they show related areas of needed cognitive and language development as well. English language learners make progress in learning English, albeit very slowly. This suggests that, rather than changes in curriculum or testing practices, effective intervention for these students must target more basic faculties, sometimes referred to as nonacademic skills. And although skills like memory, attention, processing and inhibitory control are developed in early childhood, recent discoveries regarding brain plasticity have shown that they can be trained and improved well into adulthood.
Computerized interventions like Fast ForWord
have been demonstrated to improve the memory, attention, and processing skills that serve as the foundation for all academic progress. Instead of a vicious cycle where students fall farther behind as educational demands increase because their fundamental processing difficulties remain unresolved, Fast ForWord creates a virtuous cycle where training each of these skills strengthens the others in turn. Targeted intervention that focuses on the way our brain processes basic building blocks of literacy and all learning may hold the key to closing one of education’s most intractable performance gaps.