Putting a good face on NAEP results

It was refreshing to see Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett taking a glass-is-half-full approach to reporting Indiana’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. A state Department of Education news release pointed out that Indiana students continued to score above the national average on NAEP, also called the Nation’s Report Card. “Our educators, students and parents should be encouraged by these results,” Bennett said.

Of course this year’s results are little different from the previous NAEP scores for 2009. And Gov. Mitch Daniels, in his 2011 State of the State address, used those scores to argue that Indiana schools were failing and in need of drastic reform. Daniels claimed that “only one in three of our children can pass the national math or reading exam” and that Hoosier students “trail far behind most states and even more foreign countries on measures like excellence in math …”

About one-third of Indiana students score “proficient” on NAEP, but that doesn’t mean the rest of them don’t pass. According to education historian Diane Ravitch, a former member of the NAEP board, proficient is equivalent to an A or a strong B+ on the exam.

NAEP tests a representative sample of fourth-graders and eighth-graders in math and reading. Indiana fourth-graders did pretty well in math: Their average score was 4 points higher than the national average, they significantly trailed students in only six states, and fully 87 percent scored at the “basic” or higher level – essentially a passing score.

In the other areas, fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math and reading, Indiana was right in the middle –- we trail many, but not most, of the other states.

There are some reasons for seeing the glass as half empty, however. Average scores for black and Hispanic students continued to be significantly lower than those for non-Hispanic whites. Only 44 percent of black fourth-graders, for example, scored at basic or higher in reading, compared to 74 percent of white fourth-graders. Most discouraging, the test-score gaps between whites and minorities, and between middle-class and poor, have changed little since the 1990s.

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