Every couple of years, public alarm spikes over reports that only one-third of American students are performing at grade level in reading and math. No matter the grade — fourth, eighth or 12th — these reports claim that tests designed by the federal government, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), demonstrate that our kids can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. It’s nonsense.
James Harvey: About Those NAEP Scores
Guesting at Valerie Strauss’s Answer Sheet blog on the Washington Post, James Harvey addresses, again, the misconceptions tied to the NAEP definition of “proficient.”
In fact, digging into the data on NAEP’s website reveals, for example, that 81 percent of American fourth-graders are performing at grade level in mathematics. Reading? Sixty-six percent. How could this one-third distortion come to be so widely accepted? Through a phenomenon that Humpty Dumpty described best to Alice in “Through the Looking Glass”: “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean.”
Here, the part of Humpty Dumpty was played by Reagan-era political appointees to a policy board overseeing NAEP. The members of the National Assessment Governing Board, most with almost no grounding in statistics, chose to define the term “proficient” as a desirable goal in the face of expert opinion that such a goal was “indefensible.”
Here’s a typical account from the New York Times in 2019 reporting on something that is accurate as far as it goes: results from NAEP indicate that only about one-third of fourth- and eighth-graders are “proficient” in reading.
But that statement quickly turns into the misleading claim that only one-third of American students are on grade level. The 74, for example, obtained $4 million from the Walton and DeVos foundations in 2015 by insisting that “less than half of our students can read or do math at grade-level.”
The claim rests on a careless conflation of NAEP’s “proficient” benchmark with grade-level performance. The NAEP assessment sorts student scores into three achievement levels — basic, proficient, and advanced. The terms are mushy and imprecise. Still, there’s no doubt that the federal test makers who designed NAEP see “proficient” as the desirable standard, what they like to describe as “aspirational.”
However, as Peggy Carr from the National Center for Education Statistics, which funds NAEP, has said repeatedly, if people want to know how many students are performing at grade level, they should be looking at the “basic” benchmark. By that logic, students at grade level would be all those at the basic level or above, which is to say that grade-level performance in reading and mathematics in grades 4, 8 and 12, is almost never below 60 percent and reaches as high as 81 percent.