Decoding the results of this year’s NAEP scores

Are this year’s NAEP scores as gloomy as people say or is there more to the story? Here are three takeaways from Raise Your Hand Texas.

Education practitioners, experts and pundits across the country have weighed in on what the results of this year’s Nation’s Report Card means for schools nationwide and in Texas. And the opinions and spin on this year’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) range from optimistic to dire.

Nationwide, NAEP performance has been stagnant since the 2008 recession. In Texas, the results were mixed. Fourth-graders made gains this year in math — outpacing the national average — and reading, as compared to their peers across the country. However, eighth-grader performance in both math and reading declined further behind students in other states.

At Raise Your Hand, we have three main takeaways from this year’s NAEP scores:

  1. As a state and nation, we cannot be content with stagnating scores or drops in student performance. Continued improvement in our public schools cannot be compromised. It’s what our state and nation demand, and what our students deserve.
  2. Though there is undoubtedly work to be done to improve schools nationally and here in Texas, we must consider demographic differences to allow students of similar backgrounds to be compared fairly across all states. Experts say factors such as a student’s family income, their receipt of special education services, and status as an English language learner can impact test scores, yet these are not shown in the topline NAEP results.  We look at Texas’ performance from that perspective below.
  3. It’s vitally important to consider funding cuts, both nationwide and in Texas, that have been made in public education since the great recession to fully understand the context around this year’s scores. Time and again, studies prove money matters in education. Funding allows schools to attract, develop, and retain the best teachers and provide students a wider selection of engaging courses and activities. It should not be forgotten that this year’s Texas eighth graders were in Kindergarten when our state made dramatic education cuts in 2011.

Let’s dig into the details …

As a state, there’s no doubt Texas can and must do better.

According to the topline NAEP scores, Texas ranked 42nd in fourth-grade reading, 12th in fourth-grade math, 46th in eighth-grade reading and 32nd in eighth grade math.

Yet we must remember scores like these don’t happen in a vacuum. 

It’s important to consider our state ranked in the bottom 10 of all states in per-student funding, according to the annual Quality Counts report produced by Education Week. In the 2011 biennium, Texas cut $5.3 billion from the public education budget, leaving schools scrambling to operate with less funding despite a growing student population. By 2016, total per-student spending when adjusted for inflation was still $3.2 billion below what it was in 2008.

In addition, in Texas nearly 3.1 million students, or 58 percent, are economically disadvantaged and over 1 million students, or 19 percent, are learning English as a second language. How Texas tackles the challenges these students face, will impact not just our own state, but the rest of the nation. Other states will look to Texas for solutions on how to improve outcomes for an increasingly poor and diverse student population. Just as it has in the past, Texas must continue to lead the way toward proven programs that address this population’s needs.

We must also remember, the topline results on tests like these don’t tell all

While no single test is a tell-all indicator of how our state’s schools, teachers, and students are performing, NAEP scores are an important reminder that we still have a long way to go before all students and teachers have what they need to be successful.

The Urban Institute, a non-partisan Washington D.C. based research organization, dug a little deeper into the NAEP statistics and created an interactive tool to demonstrate how each state’s portrait of “achievement” changes when demographic differences are factored into the results.

After adjusting for poverty and other student characteristics, the Urban Institute found the following: 

  • Texas ranks in the top 5 states nationally on three of the four tests.
  • Texas’ ranking in fourth-grade reading jumped from 42nd to 4th. 
  • Texas went from 46th to 22nd in eighth-grade reading. 
  • Texas went from 12th to 2nd in fourth-grade math. 
  • Texas jumped from 32nd to 4th in eighth-grade math.

None of this is to suggest that Texas is performing to expectations, especially when it comes to students in poverty, English Language Learners, and some other populations. But it does provide additional data that is very important to consider to ensure we understand the full context of where we are performing well as a state, and where we still have challenges to address.

Despite challenges, we have reason to expect better looking forward

House Bill 3 was a good step toward a brighter future for our students. Texas legislators should be applauded for supporting additional funding for students who are economically disadvantaged, which will allow our state to better serve students who need more assistance. Heightened investments in early literacy and full-day pre-K have great potential to ensure that students start school on a solid footing, and continue down the path to success.

As Texas begins to implement many of the literacy and math policies adopted in HB 3, our students should experience academic growth. Additional funding targeting students living in poverty or overcoming dyslexia and limited English proficiency should improve those students’ outcomes. Targeted programs to train teachers in better reading instruction should also help. 

Our work to improve Texas schools is far from done. Our attention and investment in innovative programs must continue to increase if we are to meet the needs of our students and of a strong state and national economy. Yes, Texas is doing better on the NAEP than it appears on the surface. But we can and must do better in the areas of continuing investment as well as student performance. And we at Raise Your Hand Texas look forward to what our students can accomplish on the 2021 NAEP assessment and beyond.

For more on how to decode the NAEP, check out the Urban Institute’s graphics highlighting unadjusted versus adjusted scores below.

NAEP 4th-Grade Math Scores
NAEP 4th-Grade Reading Scores
NAEP 8th-Grade Math Scores
NAEP 8th Grade Reading Scores

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