Alabama’s national test scores still low, but not last

Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, released Tuesday, show Alabama’s scores in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math remain unchanged from 2015, the last time the tests were given.

Scores at the national level were flat, too, except in eighth-grade reading, where scores increased. Scores in Alabama were significantly lower than the national average in all four areas tested.

And though Alabama’s students are not dead last in the ranking of the states, student test results are still in the bottom rung among all states, the District of Columbia and the Department of Defense schools.

The NAEP, also called the Nation’s Report Card, is considered the gold standard of tests because it has been consistently testing students using the same criteria for many years. There is no way to teach to the test and as such, no way to game results.

Former state superintendent Michael Sentance rang the NAEP alarm bell in 2016, pointing to Alabama’s low ranking in the country as a clear indicator that Alabama needed urgent improvement in math, reading and science.


At that time, Alabama was ranked 52nd for fourth-grade math results.

Former Gov. Robert Bentley was referring to that ranking on NAEP scores when he famously said, “Our education system in this state sucks,” to an audience of county managers in Montgomery in November 2016.

The bottom line is Alabama’s students have never done well on the NAEP, and these results show they’re about where they’ve been for the last 10 years.

National Center for Education Statistics Assistant Commissioner Peggy Carr, who oversees NAEP testing, said results are best used as a look across many years.

Because states set school funding levels, decide how those funds are distributed, and set standards for learning, state-level officials are best positioned to examine why scores increased or decreased, Carr said.

Though Alabama’s scores are flat, when examined over the long haul, improvement can be seen at both grade levels.

Here’s a look at Alabama’s fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores over time, compared with the national average for public schools.

In 1998, 2011, and 2013, Alabama’s fourth-grade reading scores statistically reached the national average but were significantly lower than the national public school scores in all other years. Many gave credit for the rise in scores in 2011 to the Alabama Reading Initiative, or ARI. The program lost impact over the years, as the recession strained state coffers and money meant for the program was reallocated and ultimately cut from the program.

Alabama lawmakers increased funding for ARI for next year, hoping to reinvigorate the program by requiring a focus on the early grades.

Alabama’s math scores have improved through the years but have never reached the national average and have always been significantly lower than national public school averages.

Because scale scores can be difficult to relate to real-world learning, NAEP also sets three achievement levels: basic, proficient, and advanced. Proficiency is the desirable level, but in recent years, researchers have pushed back, saying cut scores for proficiency are too high.

The bar is set at an aspirational level, based on what students should know and be able to do, according to Carr.

The official explanation of achievement levels on the NAEP website acknowledges that “proficient” does not mean grade-level and shouldn’t be considered as such.

Looking at NAEP results that way, while Alabama still lands at the bottom of the pack, there are other states struggling to reach proficiency alongside Alabama.

The following maps were created by the National Center for Education Statistics. The shading shows states the percentages of students at or above proficiency in relation to the national average. There is one map for each set of scores.

The purpose of having all states take the NAEP, beginning in 2003, was to confirm achievement levels on state assessments in math and reading at the fourth- and eighth-grade levels. Prior to 2003, participation in the NAEP was voluntary.

Through the years, wide gaps emerged between the percentage of students reaching proficiency on a state’s standardized test and the percentage of students reaching proficiency on the NAEP.

That gap became known as the “honesty gap,” implying a state with a large gap may hold low expectations for students in setting the proficiency bar too low.

Before Alabama adopted the ACT Aspire for use in the 2013-2014 school year, a national organization called out states like Alabama where wide gaps exist. Alabama was praised as a “top truth-teller” the following year because ACT Aspire proficiency levels were closer to NAEP proficiency levels.

Alabama dropped the ACT Aspire in 2017 and is currently searching for another state assessment.

The NAEP was administered from January through March 2017. Students took the tests on tablets for the first time in 2017, and that has some questioning whether that switch could have had an impact on scores. Louisiana Superintendent John White has been vocal about his belief that the transition likely did impact scores. NCES Associate Commissioner Peggy Carr told reporters during a press call this week that officials there accounted for the switch through statistical methods. Some researchers are waiting to weigh in.

NAEP testing began in 1969. The test is administered by the National Center for Education Statistics, which is a part of the U.S. Department of Education.

NAEP differs from other tests in a number of ways, including its status as a low-stakes test, meaning no consequences are attached to levels of performance on the NAEP.

Rather than have all students take the test, NAEP uses a statistically valid sample of about 200,000 students in each of the fourth and eighth grades. are tested across the country every two years in math and reading.

Students in those same grades are also tested in science at regular intervals, and the 2015 results, released in 2016, showed Alabama students at or near the bottom of the pack.

Tests are given to twelfth-grade students and are also given in other subject areas, including writing, the arts, civics, geography, economics, U.S. history, and technology and engineering literacy. State-level results are not made available for those subjects nor at the twelfth-grade level.

NAEP results are broken down by race, ethnicity, poverty level, disability status, and English Language Learner status. Look for further analysis as those numbers become available.


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