What Can We Learn From NAEP?

Written by:
Written by: Claus von Zastrow
Nov. 4, 2019

Mississippi and the District of Columbia, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you. The Magnolia State and the nation’s capital were the only jurisdictions to see significant improvements in both math and reading in the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the results of which became public last Wednesday. (The District of Columbia, which celebrated the Nationals’ World Series win on the same day, is on a roll.)

Scores for the nation as a whole dropped significantly in fourth and eighth grade reading and eighth grade math. Only fourth grade math scores ticked upward. State leaders may well look to Mississippi and the district for insights.

Both stand out for the sheer size and staying power of their gains. Since 2003, Mississippi has risen from nearly last place among states to the national average in fourth grade math and reading. The state is still below the national average in eighth grade math, but it has cut the gap in half over the same period. Over the past 16 years, the district has boasted larger gains in fourth grade math and reading than any other state or district that participates in NAEP. The same holds for the district’s eighth grade math results.

As Mississippi and the district continue to work on student performance, they have lessons to share with education reformers who feel bruised by disappointing results in their states. Mississippi earned Education Commission of the States’ prestigious 2016 Frank Newman Award for State Innovation for its commitment to reform. (Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant is Education Commission of the States’ immediate past chair.)

In 2010, the state adopted rigorous academic content standards. Three years later, it adopted sweeping legislation that coupled higher state education funding with a focus on early reading, teacher training and support, and a clearer school rating system.

The district adopted nationally recognized academic content standards in 2005 before replacing them with different, but comparable, math and reading standards five years later. After a few tumultuous years marked by a mayoral takeover of the school system in 2007 and battles over controversial reforms to teacher compensation and hiring and firing practices, the district has settled into a quieter, but enduring, set of reforms. They include improving curriculum and teaching materials that support academic standards, strengthening teacher recruitment, improving teacher pay, rewarding teacher performance and beefing up teacher training.

It is far from easy to prove that any of the reforms above led to growth in NAEP scores, but states that make such sustained gains have every reason to stick with what seems to be working. Both Mississippi and the district have held to consistent and coherent education reform strategies for the better part of a decade, which is no mean feat amid changes in leadership and shifting political priorities.

There were other bright spots in the mostly dreary NAEP results: For example, recent state initiatives to expand computer science education seemed to gain traction. The share of eighth graders with access to programming classes jumped from 49% to 60% between 2017 and 2019. It’s difficult to know whether those classes adhere to any standard of quality, but the change offers preliminary evidence that states’ efforts are paying off.

For now, Mississippi and the District of Columbia offer more solid evidence of growth. We look forward to keeping our eyes on their progress.

Visit the our Vital Signs webpage to check out your own state’s results on the 2019 NAEP math assessment, which offers much more than test scores. You can find NAEP data on teacher qualifications, teaching resources, access to programming classes and more.  

Author profile

Claus von Zastrow

Claus von Zastrow

Principal at Education Commission of the States | cvonzastrow@ecs.org

Claus oversees efforts to improve statewide longitudinal data systems and provide state-by-state data on STEM education. He has held senior positions in education policy and research for more than 17 years and has spent much of that time helping diverse stakeholders find consensus on important education issues. Claus is dedicated to ensuring that state leaders have the information and guidance they need to make the best possible decisions affecting young people.

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