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Overhauling the Nation’s Report Card


Published May 18, 2022

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has been the gold standard of achievement testing for over 50 years. But getting it in shape for the next 50 years does not come without challenges. Chester Finn, Jr., explains why preserving the NAEP from today’s political battles will require several key changes.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is it important to have an established national achievement testing standard?
  2. What challenges is the National Assessment of Educational Progress facing?

Additional resources:

  • Check out the book by Chester Finn, Jr., Assessing the Nation’s Report Card: Challenges and Choices for NAEP. Available here.
  • Read “We’re Rewriting the Most Important Educational Test You’ve Never Heard Of,” by Chester Finn, Jr. Available here.
  • Watch “Why Testing and Accountability Matter in K–12 Education” on PolicyEd. Available here.
View Transcript

How do we measure achievement gaps and learning trends for young Americans? The answer is a test that you may never have heard of: the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), better known as the “Nation’s Report Card.”

NAEP has been around since LBJ was in the White House. Today, it tests schoolchildren in grades 4, 8 and 12 across ten subjects. It tests a random sample of about a hundred schools per state and fifty students per school—just enough to yield valid data. For reading and math, it delivers results every two years, yielding data for the whole country, each state, and more than two dozen cities.

These data are how we know that the reading and math prowess of high school seniors has flat-lined for decades even as the graduation rate has risen. They’re 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—underscoring the persistent “achievement gaps” that recent reform efforts have failed to close.

And soon NAEP will yield definitive data on learning setbacks wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Surprisingly, this indispensable test has avoided the political controversies that other tests and federal programs have faced. It’s low stakes, with no direct consequences for the students, teachers, or schools that participate. The test content avoids controversy through a multi-year process that engages a host of education stakeholders, with final decisions made by an autonomous policy-setting body called the National Assessment Governing Board.

But can NAEP sustain its reputation as the gold standard of achievement testing and avoid today’s political battles and culture wars over what young Americans should be taught?

To do so will require some key changes.

First, NAEP needs to embrace technology. Today’s process is far too cumbersome, as Federal contractors physically transport tablets to every participating school and engage on-site supervisors to monitor the kids who take the test. That’s process is expensive, labor-intensive, inefficient, and slow.

Instead, the tests could be done with schools’ own equipment, transmitted electronically, and stored in the cloud. That won’t be simple—but it’s certainly doable.

Nor has NAEP developed “adaptive” tests, which would spare students from wasting time on questions that are far too easy or difficult for them. That would permit both faster testing and more precise identification of their strengths and weaknesses.

The second major reform is rethinking the test’s scope and timing. What subjects should be tested how often? In what grade levels? And for what jurisdictions? Right now, the scheduled keeps jumping around. The rule of thumb going forward should be regularity.

We can picture NAEP assessments adhering to four-year cycles. We could test reading and math on four-year cycles beginning the first year, then test science the next year, history, civics, & geography the next, and then art and technology the last year in the cycle.

Finally, we should improve the way NAEP results are reported  in order to increase the test’s visibility and impact. For instance, we could add a retail element to the assessment, giving parents a way to estimate how their district, school, or child is faring against NAEP standards. NAEP should certainly provide states with 12th grade data in the future, as it already does for grades 4 and 8.

Other challenges await. Can NAEP stay focused on academic achievement when many educators are preoccupied with outcomes such as equity, diversity, and citizenship rather than literacy and numeracy? I hope so. The goal is not to replace NAEP, and certainly not to end it. But getting it in shape for the next fifty years is an undertaking as ambitious and demanding as it is vital.