We’re rewriting the most important educational test you’ve never heard of

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Thousands of fourth and eighth graders have just completed a pivotal test that few Americans know anything about: the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also called the “Nation’s Report Card.” 

How they fared in reading and math will yield the most definitive data about learning losses caused by COVID-forced school shutdowns. NAEP is also how we gauge achievement gaps between student groups and whether they’re widening or narrowing over time. It’s how we know whether kids in Maryland are doing better or worse in key subjects than their peers in Virginia and Washington, D.C.    

NAEP, in fact, is America’s indispensable testing program. Yet it’s almost unknown outside policy and research circles. 

Funded by Congress at almost $200 million a year, it’s been around since Lyndon B. Johnson was in the White House. Today, NAEP tests school children in grades four, eight and 12 in 10 subjects. For reading and math, it delivers results every two years, producing data for every state and more than two dozen cities as well as the country as a whole. 

NAEP is how, for example, we see that the reading and math prowess of high school seniors has flatlined for decades even as graduation rates have risen. It’s how we know that 44 percent of white eighth-graders were “proficient” in math in 2019 while just 14 percent of Black students reached that level.  

But you’re not the only one who’s barely aware of this vital testing program. Few practicing educators know much about it, either. 

How is that possible when testing is such a battlefield and everything Uncle Sam touches draws instant unrest in Twittertown? 

One key: NAEP tests a random sample, just enough to yield valid data. That means about 100 schools per state and 50 students per school. So it doesn’t touch most kids or schools.   

What’s more, it’s a low-stakes test. Nobody gets promoted or graduated — or held back or denied a diploma — on the basis of their NAEP score. No school gets rated on its NAEP results. No teacher gets evaluated on the basis of her pupils’ NAEP scores. 

Yet those scores do have consequences. They can tarnish or vindicate a governor’s education strategy. Al Gore once tried to use NAEP results to boost his run for the Oval Office, and George W. Bush supporters cited Texas’s NAEP gains and gap closings as evidence that he should beat Gore. On the ground, however, NAEP scores don’t affect anyone in particular. So there’s no reason to “teach to” these tests.  

Yet much rides on their results. NAEP has become an essential tool for pursuing both excellence and equity in American K-12 education. Its “achievement levels,” dubbed basic, proficient and advanced, are the closest the U.S. has ever come to national standards. Its reports function as audits of claims — and exaggerations — made by state leaders. 

Over the decades, however, the Nation’s Report Card has grown creaky, stodgy and pricey at more than $400 per test taker. Federal contractors still haul the testing gear from school to school. Little use is made of artificial intelligence. Reports emerge slowly. Key data gaps remain, such as state-level scores at the end of high school and reading results in the early grades. Civics and history are tested infrequently — and only in eighth grade — and decisions about what to test are roiled by political schisms now creeping into the assessment’s 26-member governing board. 

Can NAEP be modernized? That’s the challenge posed in a recent review by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), which made 21 recommendations that would push a leaner, nimbler NAEP into its second half-century. 

Besides multiple moves to contain costs, they would change how achievement trends are reported, merge assessments so that a student might take a combined test of history, civics and geography (or reading and writing), revamp how test items are created and tests scored and develop a “next-generation technology platform” for the entire venture. 

The panel could have gone farther, pushing harder on the oligopolistic behavior of NAEP’s outside contractors, pressing for those 12th grade state-level results, and more. But just operationalizing the changes it outlined will be a heavy lift. Authority over NAEP is split between its governing board and the federal Education Department. Budgets get set at the White House. The contracting process is rigid and half-hidden. And Congress both micromanages and neglects NAEP. (Its core statute hasn’t been touched in decades.) Then there’s the caution and inertia that ensnare any federal program that’s been around so long.  

The risk, as always, with reports like the Academies’, is that the status quo will prevail. This time the risk is heightened by fears that “opening up” NAEP will expose it to today’s culture wars. The governing board nearly came to blows last year over how to test reading. It’s now embarking on a science update and touchier subjects lie ahead. Can the board update those tests without coming apart over racism and patriotism? Can it maintain rigorous benchmarks when some view the mere documentation of learning gaps as racist? Can NAEP stay focused on academic achievement when many educators seek more attention to students’ social-emotional well-being and many policy leaders want K-12 education to refocus on career readiness? Can the secretary of Education refrain from naming activists and ideologues to the board? Can NAEP control its costs even as it takes on more challenges?  

We must hope so. Half a century in, the test you never heard of is a resource that the United States needs both to modernize and preserve.   

Chester E. Finn Jr., is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. His forthcoming book is “Assessing the Nation’s Report Card: Challenges and Choices for NAEP.”

Tags Achievement gaps in the United States Al Gore Education in the United States Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education standardized testing

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