Friday, April 25, 2014 · 12:59 a.m.
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The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a topic I’ve written about before. For a quick reminder, NAEP is overseen and implemented by the commissioner of education statistics in the U.S. Department of Education and the National Assessment governing board. The assessment exists to provide a representative measure of "… what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas." You can think of it (as they do) as the nation’s report card. It is more fun to write about NAEP this time because, according to the most recent release of fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading results, Tennessee enjoyed some success.

On our way
Specifically, Tennessee’s grade four math raw score rose from 232.9 in 2011 to 239.8 in 2013 (the test is given to a representative sample every two years)—that’s a 6.9 point increase. For context, the difference between the state with the highest and lowest grade four math scores is 22.3 points, making 6.9 almost one-third of the way to the top. That 6.9 point increase was the largest jump from 2011 to 2013 in grade four math scores. Tennessee’s grade four scores were in 46th out of 50 places in 2011. 2013 left Tennessee ranked at 37, meaning we improved nine places. Of course, we want to be among the top scorers, but moving up nine slots in the rankings is cause for some happiness. Similar trends followed in grade eight math and grades four and eight reading, as well.

Below is a table summarizing the most recent NAEP results.

2013 NAEP results for Tennessee

 

Change in raw score since 2011 with current rank

 

Current raw score (0–500) and rank

 

Previous raw score (0–500) and rank

Grade 4 math

+6.9 points and ranked 1st

239.8 and ranked 37th (+9)

232.9 and ranked 46th

Grade 8 math

+3.7 points and ranked 1st

277.7 and ranked 43rd (+2)

274.0 and ranked 45th

Grade 4 reading

+5.1 points and ranked 1st

219.7 and ranked 31st (+10)

214.6 and ranked 41st

Grade 8 reading

+6.2 points and ranked 2nd (California beat us by 0.4 points, but I saw a documentary on the Science Channel the other night that predicted part of California would soon be wiped out by a mega-tsunami stemming from a massive landslide off the Big Island of Hawaii—I’m just saying.)

265.4 and ranked 34th (+7)

259.2 and ranked 41st

 

Every party has a pooper
Of course, these encouraging results come with some caveats and a good bit of drama. We won’t get into the technical stuff here, but there are some things to be aware of when interpreting NAEP scores. Today’s is a good news party blog, so I will only provide a link to the heavy stuff. In general, however, the article encourages us to beware the psychometric bends when experiencing a drastic rise from the depths. Also, if you do much reading about NAEP and the recent results, you will see opinions ranging from Gov. Bill Haslam, who wrote:

None of this was easy. In fact, because education reform involves accountability for adults and change to an entrenched system, the pushback from some quarters has been relentless. But we have stayed the course, committed to our strategy, and our students have grown considerably.

and Diane Ravitch, who wrote:

... These state comparisons are stupid and say nothing about the quality of education available in different states. Anyone who takes them seriously is either a sports writer covering education or someone who thinks that education can be reduced to the scores on standardized tests.

Tenn-essence
Most folks fall somewhere in the middle of those two perspectives. Because of the way NAEP is administered and the way schools within states are selected, it is hard to give specific initiatives or policies full credit with much confidence. In addition, comparing NAEP results from year to year is riddled with potential pitfalls. However, to say that the comparisons are "stupid" is to undermine the hard work of Tennessee educators and education professionals. Although NAEP’s methodology makes it slippery to point to a specific reason, the fact remains that Tennessee’s scores did improve, as did our place in the ranks. If that provides some much-needed encouragement and hope to teachers, administrators, community members, moms, dads and students, it is far from "stupid." It wouldn’t be "stupid" if we dropped 10 places in the ranks. It would be devastatingly sad. Conversely, that 10-place rank growth in grade four reading, from 41st to 31st, is great news; and it should be celebrated.

Not THE END
The most recent results are not all of or the end of Tennessee’s public education story. Clearly, we want these results to generalize and/or carry over to other tests, assessments, college and career readiness measures, and eventually career success. A test or assessment result is worthless without a conversation, and the most recent NAEP results are certainly worth talking about.

Keith White is PEF Chattanooga’s director of research and effectiveness. Feel free to reach out to him by email with any questions, comments or requests. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

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