Grad Rates Up, NAEP Scores Down, What Does It Mean?

October 30, 2015

Bill DeBaun, Program Analyst

It has been an exciting two weeks for fans of education data. Last week, the Department of Education released the latest set of high school graduation rates for the high school graduating class of 2014, and this week the most recent set of results for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the nation’s report card, were revealed.

The disconcerting bit of information is that only one of these sets of data had good news.

Let’s start with the bad news. For the first time in 25 years (since 1990), American students’ math scores on NAEP declined for both 4th and 8th graders. Reading scores for 4th graders were flat since the 2013 administration of the exam and dropped for 8th graders. 12th graders were not tested in this round of NAEP, but they will be tested again in 2017.

As is typical when NAEP results are released, various interest groups in the education world are attributing the tests’ outcomes to whatever their favorite (or in the case of declines, despised) causal mechanism is. This year, the Common Core and a culture of over-testing are taking the brunt of blame.

Unsurprisingly, U.S. education officials are urging caution in putting too much stock in the results.

“We don't know yet if these changes ... are long-term," said Peggy Carr, acting commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics. "We need to be cautious and exercise a little bit of judgment to see what will happen in 2017." U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted that he was not particularly surprised by the drop in scores and attributed it to an “implementation dip” caused by teachers and students needing to adjust to more rigorous standards.

The trend of NAEP improvement over the past two decades had test scores in both subjects slowly, but surely, ticking upward both overall and for student subgroups. Unfortunately, the achievement gaps between the subgroups were also persistent, and that remained true for the 2015 results. Still, the long-term trend is a hopeful one, says Vox’s Libby Nelson: “While education reforms…haven't led to immediate, drastic improvements, there has been slow, steady progress. And over time, that progress adds up. Just 13 percent of students tested as proficient in math in 1990; now 40 percent do.” Be sure to visit Nelson’s article for an excellent infographic on the pernicious and persistent gaps in NAEP achievement between white and black students over time.

Although student scores have been rising quite steadily over the past two decades, overall progress has been much more gradual as a result of something called Simpson’s Paradox. Demographics in the United States are shifting, and students of color comprise a larger percentage of the nation’s student body. Because these students tend to score lower on NAEP than their white counterparts, overall increases in NAEP achievement are depressed (see the figure below, via Wikipedia).


It is important to avoid laying the NAEP results at the feet of any particular cause. Instead, the education world should be patient and wait until 2017 to see if 2015’s results are a momentary bump in the road or the start of a downward trend. It is too early to tell which of these it is now, and anyone saying it is not likely has an agenda they need these results to fit into.

Now for the good news. Starting in 2010, the U.S. Department of Education required a shift in high school graduation rate reporting to a methodology called the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR). This methodology, wonky details aside, is hailed as more accurate than others because it accounts for transfers in and out of a school and is less likely to lose students over the course of their high school careers. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education released state level  graduation rates using this methodology, and the results show that we are graduating more students from high school than ever before. In March, the nation’s overall graduation rate was 81 percent.

36 states saw increases in their overall graduation rate, and the majority of states also saw decreases in the white-black, white-Hispanic graduation rate gaps. Additionally, 23 states saw decreases in their graduation gaps between limited English proficiency and economically disadvantaged student groups and all students.

Secretary Duncan noted that although these results are encouraging, the work is not over. “To be clear, there are still hundreds of thousands of kids every year who are dropping out. What chance in life do they have? Progress is good, but we’ve got to get better faster.”

There is not much of an intersection or interaction between these two bits of data news, other than temporal proximity in when we received the press releases. The kneejerk (and incorrect) read is to say that we are graduating more students than ever before but that they know less than they did two years ago or that their achievement relative to prior classes has stalled. But there is no overlap between the students in these data points.

Students graduating in the 2013-14 school year would have been 4th and 8th graders in 2006 and 2008, points in time when NAEP scores were still rising. Perhaps some will be on the lookout for commensurate graduation rate dips stemming from the 2015 NAEP administration in the high school graduating classes of 2019 and 2023, but to do so seems silly to me. A lot can happen between now and then, and between 4th and 8th grade and high school graduation in general (although previous NAEP administrations have shown that achievement after 8th grade does not rise as steadily). NAEP is not anything close to a 1:1 indicator or predictor of high school graduation at the individual or macro level. (It is, however, an indicator of how well students perform academically, so we should be wary of lax standards in high school leading to students graduating who are ill prepared to succeed in college or career, a topic for a different blog post.)

As mentioned previously, the best course of action at this point is to reserve judgment on the NAEP results’ implications until 2017. Simultaneously, we should acknowledge that graduation rates are increasing, and achievement gaps are closing, but that far, far too many students are still not graduating from high school prepared for college and career. Consequently, there should be no resting on any kind of laurels. The work for NCAN members and their K-12 partners continues.

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