Indiana’s eighth-grade reading scores appear to be a bright spot in the mostly drab results of the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress. But on closer inspection, maybe not.
Indiana was one of 10 states that boosted eighth-grade reading scores between 2015 and 2017. But the improvement may be misleading, Indiana University professor Sarah Theule Lubienski said. Grade-retention policies that Indiana implemented five years earlier may have removed the lowest-achieving students from the group, leaving a stronger-than-normal class.
“I’d like to think this is a real gain, that the students in eighth grade were reading better,” said Lubienski, a professor of math education and an expert on NAEP. “But I worry we may have just lost our most struggling readers in that cohort.”
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, given every two years to a sample of students in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, measures math and reading performance in fourth and eighth grades. At the national level, the latest scores changed little from 2015.
Indiana followed the national pattern for eighth-grade math and fourth-grade math and reading scores, which were essentially unchanged. But eighth-graders improved in reading, and they also bucked a national trend that saw the gap grow between high- and low-achieving students.
For a possible explanation, look back to 2011, when Indiana created a third-grade reading test and told schools they should retain students who didn’t pass. According to state retention data, 3 percent of third-graders had to repeat the grade.
Those who weren’t held back took the fourth-grade NAEP tests in 2013, and got positive attention for how well they did. Advocates credited Indiana reforms like expanded school choice and limits on teacher collective bargaining. But a more likely explanation is that removing the lowest-performing students gave the 2013 fourth-grade scores a boost.
Students who were in fourth grade in 2013 were in eighth grade in 2017, and they again showed marked improvement over the previous group of eighth-graders — at least in reading.
At the same time, Indiana has long tended to have NAEP scores that are a little above average in reading and several points above average in math. It also does well when scores are adjusted for student demographics.
National scores see little change
At the national level, there was a small but statistically significant jump in eighth-grade reading but otherwise no meaningful change from 2015 in the 2017 scores. Results were widely described as stagnant.
One noteworthy and worrisome result, Lubienski said, is that the gap widened significantly between the groups of students who scored highest on the tests and the groups of students who scored lowest.
“The high-achieving kids gained and the low-achieving kids lost,” she said. “The consistency of that result, across grade levels and subject areas, is pretty remarkable. And disturbing.”
There doesn’t seem to be an obvious explanation. Maybe it’s a reflection of wider societal trends. Maybe it’s tied to the effects of the recession or a downturn in state funding for K-12 schools.
NAEP is not ISTEP
It’s easy to be cynical about the breathless attention that NAEP generates, especially in an era of standardized-testing fatigue. But NAEP is arguably different. Scores are reported for states and a few large cities, but not for schools or districts. It’s a low-stakes test taken by a sample of students.
“It is one test, but it is a test designed by people who represent various groups in the country,” said Lubienski, who has chaired the NAEP studies research group at the American Educational Research Association. “It’s our best shot at saying, here’s what we value and how we want to measure it.”
Step back, and those measurements have produced more good news than bad about America’s schools. Over the past 20 years, students made modest but steady gains in reading but remarkable improvement in math. It’s not surprising those gains would level off eventually, as they have.
“It’s not time to say the sky is falling,” Lubienski said. “If you look at the view of two decades, there’s been a lot of progress.”