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The Nation's Report Card: What is NAEP, and Why Should We Care?

You may be familiar with a commonly discussed statistic reported in 2022, shown below.

A laptop computer sitting in front of rainbow-colored books with black text on a white background stating: "68 percent of 4th grade public school students are not proficient readers."

This casts a dark cloud on the state of literacy education today, establishing an urgent need for change in school systems’ approaches to reading instruction. This statistic has been cited and shared in school presentations, news stories, social media posts, and in everyday conversation.


Yet where does this information come from?


If we want to share a statistic painting a dire picture of the state of literacy education today, we must be able to speak to where this information came from and how it was collected. We must understand the tool used to gather this information, including both its value and its limitations.


In today’s post, we’re answering 15 essential questions regarding “The Nation’s Report Card”- a nickname for The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), pronounced “nape.” This assessment, with origins dating back to 1969, is a congressionally-mandated national measure of student achievement. The assessment provides educational data that can be analyzed from both geographical and demographical perspectives.


Today’s post provides an overview of NAEP. Future posts will dive into more specific content covered on the NAEP Reading assessment specifically and will also share NAEP data and trends over time. If you haven’t already, subscribe to our email newsletter and never miss a SparkEd Literacy post!


15 ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS


1. What is NAEP, and who administers/oversees it?

NAEP is a congressionally-mandated assessment. It is administered by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). It is overseen by The National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB).


2. What do we mean when we say that NAEP is "congressionally-mandated"?

In 2002, former president George Bush signed the “National Assessment of Educational Progress Authorization Act.” In short, NAEP, and the existence of a National Assessment Governing Board, are required by law. To read the law in more detail, click here.


3. Is there more than one kind of NAEP assessment?

There are two kinds of NAEP assessments. These assessments vary in terms of administration, results, content, and frequency. For a more detailed comparison regarding the similarities and differences, click here.


From personal experience, when educators discuss NAEP, they are often referring to Main NAEP. The reading statistic mentioned within this post comes directly from the results of 2022 Main NAEP. Main NAEP has assessments across multiple content areas and typically assesses reading and math every two years.


Long-Term Trend NAEP is specific to reading and mathematics. It analyzes trends in student learning and performance across these domains over long periods of time. Whereas Main NAEP is administered based on grade level, Long-Term Trend NAEP is administered based on age, assessing 9-, 13-, and 17-year old students. This assessment occurs less frequently than the reading and mathematics Main NAEP, with administration occurring every four years. Long-Term Trend NAEP only provides data and results at the national level, with less information about specific subgroups. Additionally, Long-Term Trend NAEP is updated less frequently than Main NAEP, administering essentially the same test as the one administered in the 1970s. The goal of this is to provide a true measure for comparing past and present performance, which isn’t possible without a consistent measurement tool.


4. Which other content areas have Main NAEP assessments?

In addition to reading and mathematics, Main NAEP also currently assesses the following subject areas: Civics, Science, Technology & Engineering Literacy, U.S. History, and Writing.


Main NAEP used to include assessments in economics, geography, the arts, and foreign language, but these subject areas are no longer listed on NAEP’s upcoming assessment schedule. To view a schedule of past and future NAEP assessments, click here.


5. When is NAEP administered?

Main NAEP is administered to students in grades 4, 8, and 12. The reading and mathematics Main NAEP assessments are typically administered every two years between the end of January and March. Assessment administration in other Main NAEP subject areas varies in terms of frequency and grade levels assessed. Long-Term Trend NAEP is administered to students ages 9, 13, and 17, typically every four years.


6. Does NAEP only assess public school students?

NAEP is not specific to public school students. It is administered to both public and private school students.


7. Do all students take NAEP?

No. NAEP is sample-based, not census-based. This means that through a probability sample design, a sample of students is carefully selected that is intended to represent the U.S. student population. To learn more about the NAEP selection process, click here.


Student sample sizes vary based on the individual assessment. In order to report on national results,10,000 to 20,000 students must be included within a sample. To report only on state results, sample sizes must be around 3,000 students.


8. Is NAEP a paper and pencil or digital assessment?

In 2017, Main NAEP transitioned to a fully-digital assessment system in the subject areas of reading, mathematics, and writing. For more information regarding NAEP’s digital assessments, click here.


9. How long does it take for students to complete NAEP?

Each individual student only takes a small portion (approximately a quarter) of the overall NAEP assessment in a specific subject area - students do not completing a comprehensive assessment from start to finish. Each student completes their portion for approximately one and a half to two hours. Sample schools typically facilitate two NAEP testing sessions consisting of 25 students each.


10. How are the results of NAEP reported?

Main NAEP scores are reported on either a 0-500 or 0-300 scale, depending on the grade level and subject area. NAEP results are also reported as percentages of students performing at varying achievement levels. A designation of NAEP Proficient/Advanced indicates competency in the corresponding subject area. The National Assessment Governing Board released a 2018 policy report (find it here), defining these three achievement levels. These definitions are included, word for word, below.

  • Basic - “This level denotes partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for performance at the NAEP proficient level.”

  • Proficient - “This level represents solid academic performance for each NAEP assessment. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real world applications, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.”

  • Advanced - “This level signifies superior performance beyond NAEP Proficient.”

For a more detailed read regarding the setting of achievement levels, click here.


11. What makes NAEP unique?

NAEP is different from other standardized assessments because it is not crafted specifically around individual state standards or curricula. Assessment results are not based on individual students or schools, but instead on representative groups of students.


The purpose of NAEP is to provide us with information on educational trends over time, as well as to compare the performance of states and different demographic groups. NAEP is the longest-running U.S. K-12 assessment we have aimed at representing the nation. For a more detailed analysis comparing NAEP and other state assessments, click here.


12. What can we learn from NAEP?

A traditional thermometer displaying a temperature between 37 and 38 degrees

NAEP has been described as both a yardstick and a temperature read of educational progress and achievement. NAEP provides us with a macro-level understanding of educational trends over time. Through analysis of NAEP reading data, we can answer questions such as:

  • Over the last decade, has reading achievement within the U.S. increased or decreased? In which grade levels?

  • Which states have the highest reading achievement in the U.S.?

  • Which states are showing improvement in reading achievement? Which states are showing declines in reading achievement?

Additionally, NAEP allows us to analyze data based on demographic information. NAEP can alert to us to alarming achievement gaps that exist amongst different groups of students, as well as whether these achievement gaps seem to be closing or opening up over time.


13. What can we not learn from NAEP?

While NAEP tells us whether student achievement is increasing or decreasing, it does not answer a question we often are so eager to know: Why?

Someone holds a white post-it note with the black text, "Why?" in front of a green bush.

The administration of NAEP does not involve an experimental design. NAEP alerts us to whether achievement is decreasing or increasing, and it allows us to make a multitude of comparisons – we can see that one state is consistently outperforming another, or we can see that an achievement gap amongst groups of students is beginning to increase.


However, the tool itself does not tell us the reason behind these changes (despite what certain curriculum companies may say). Additionally, NAEP also does not provide us with information specific to individual students or individual schools. The smallest level of data we gain from NAEP is statewide or specific to some participating trial urban districts.


14. What are Trial Urban District Assessments (TUDA)?

The NAEP Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) began in 2002. TUDA aims to provide educational data and information in urban areas specifically. Districts meeting specific criteria in relation to size, percentage of Hispanic/African American students, and percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunches can voluntarily participate.


In 2002, just six school districts participated in TUDA. This grew to 27 school districts in 2017 and 2019, with 26 school districts participating in 2022. For more information regarding TUDA, click here.


15. Why should we care about NAEP?

NAEP provides us with a common measure of student achievement. Without a common measure, we are unable to make comparisons. A common measure of student achievement answers the first necessary question we should all be asking ourselves: Are we moving students in the right direction?


From there, we can make comparisons across two dimensions - geography and demographics. While NAEP does answer why the data is the way that it is, knowing that one location or group of students is consistently outperforming another hints at areas for future investigation.


Geographically, we can explore data from specific states. Which states are doing the best, and which states are doing the worst? What are these states doing differently? Is there a state that showed marked improvement in reading achievement over the last fifteen years? If so, can we start to examine what has been going on within the state? Did they adopt new requirements? New curriculum? New teacher training? Again, while this information is correlational, it can provide us with a space for reflection and hypothesis.


Perhaps even more importantly, demographically, we can examine data based on race, gender identification, socioeconomic status, and more. NAEP alerts us of ongoing or worsening inequity within our system. When we learn that achievement gaps are worsening, we should feel deeply motivated to take action to shift this trend so that all students have the opportunities that they deserve.


Without a common measure of student achievement, we would be unable to engage in these kinds of conversations. One state might purport that their students are excelling in specific areas, but if we are unable to measure this statement, and if different states have different standards, there would be no way to learn from them or truly measure whether or not progress has occurred.

 

If you enjoyed learning about NAEP, we’re excited to share more, specifically in regards to what NAEP tells us about reading achievement in the U.S. If you haven’t already, subscribe to our email newsletter and never miss a SparkEd Literacy post! We’ll be digging into NAEP data and discussing the Main NAEP and Long-Term Trend NAEP reading assessments more specifically.


If you have any additional questions about NAEP, drop a comment on this blog, DM us on Instagram @sparkedliteracy, or shoot us an email at admin@sparkedteachers.com. We’ll do our best to research and address your questions in our next post!

 

Written by: Taryn Quaytman & Rachel Draper

Copyright © 2023 SparkEd LLC

 

ADDITIONAL LEARNING

Interested in learning more about NAEP? Check out these resources below to learn more!

 

REFERENCES


Finn, C.E. (2021). Assessing the nation's report card: Challenges and choices for NAEP.

Harvard Education Press.


Lambert, S. (Host). (2022, September 21). NAEP: What you've always wanted to know with Chester E. Finn, Jr. (No. 2). [Audio podcast episode]. In Science of reading: The podcast.

https://amplify.com/episode/science-of-reading-the-podcast/season-6/episode-2-naep-

what-youve-always-wanted-to-know-with-chester-finn-jr/


National Center for Education Statistics. (2021). An overview of NAEP [Brochure]. https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/subject/about/pdf/naep_overview_brochure_2021.pdf


Websites Referenced:


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