NAEP Scores: Another Unacknowledged Crisis in RI


The word “pleased” should not have appeared anywhere in the statement of Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner upon release of 2017 scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test:

“Nationwide, results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress remained relatively flat, and we saw a similar trend in Rhode Island,” said state Education Commissioner Ken Wagner. “I’m pleased to see us perform better than the national average on fourth grade reading… I hope that our work around early literacy as part of the Third Grade Reading Challenge will speed up that progress going forward.”

That’s like being happy that your child is vomiting a little bit less than half the kids in the sick ward.  Never mind that his or her fever is slightly higher, his or her bleeding out of the eyes is slightly worse, and he or she is slightly more delirious than half the children.

According to the data, Rhode Island students don’t break the 40%-proficient mark in either 4th grade or 8th grade in either math or reading (or science or writing, for that matter).

For some quick perspective take a look at the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s States on the Nation’s Report Card tool, which has been updated to include the latest data.  Rhode Island’s 4th grade reading scores may be above the average state, but we used to have a lead of three points, and that’s now only two.  Worse, the Ocean State’s 8th grade math scores have fallen off a cliff.  Since the 2013 test, RI students’ average score has dropped from 284 to 277.  That’s 2.5%.  In 2013, our children were scoring the same as the average state… no longer.

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More broadly, the fashionable distraction to which state bureaucrats lead, which journalists follow, is to lament that “achievement gaps between white students and students of color continue to remain stubbornly high.”  This emphasis manages to imply that the real challenge isn’t a broken educational system, but institutional racism, and to lead white parents to think the state’s problems belong to other people, but it disguises the more disturbing conclusion.

Combining 4th and 8th grade scores on reading and math, black students in Rhode Island are actually slightly outperforming their peers in the average state.  Hispanic students in Rhode Island do worse than in the average state, but they track closely with black students, which is more typical in our region.

The big drop in Rhode Island is actually among white students, who are the majority.  Managing to keep Rhode Island’s minority students relatively flat has actually helped keep up our scores.  To the extent that Rhode Island has addressed its “achievement gap,” it has been by failing white students even more.

As I wrote in 2015, the data is strongly suggestive of a change during the governorship of Democrat Lincoln Chafee that looks like a ceiling on Rhode Island’s progress in reforming education.  If anything, we can now see that the trends have worsened, rather than improving, under his successor, and the spin should no longer be tolerated.

  • Justin Katz

    RI was making progress under Carcieri’s reformist education board, but Chafee put a stop to that, and Raimondo has doubled down on that bad decision.

    • Guest

      All that changed when the federal government department of education gave up on the “No Child Left Behind Act” one size fits all and mandated the new “Every Student Succeeds Act” customized per individual student requiring each of the states to develop brand new education plans and standards with inputs from each and every state resident, businesdd, student, politician basically all state-wide stakeholders in the individual state and submit the written plans no later than 2017 for approval.

      In Hawaii there were public meeting in almost every town soliciting input to education needs. I as a resident provided my input with over 1,000 other people at an 8 hour meeting playing what if with a lot of talking points,

      I remember Rhode Island held education meetings in each section of the state. Look back in the notes of Ocean State Current because when they had the east bay meeting I did not see your name for providing input and I called you out on it,

      Just like the person who doesn’t vote and then complains about the results as you had your chance to make a difference and didn’t take it but still are complaining.

      • Justin Katz

        Umm… Chafee gutted Carcieri’s reforms & NAEP scores flatlined. ESSA was passed into law at the end of 2015 & RI scores started going down.

        • Guest

          Good try but NAEP is given every two years. ESSA was not active till the state submitted a plan to feds for approval in 2017 and after that the state must follow its plan and standards.

  • BasicCaruso

    We can’t fall behind! What about the children?!!

    When Bad Things Happen to Good NAEP Data

    Results from the venerable exam are frequently pressed into service to bolster claims about the effect that policies, from test-based accountability to collective bargaining to specific reading and math interventions, have had on student achievement.

    While those assertions are compelling, provocative, and possibly even correct, they are also mostly speculative, researchers say. That’s because the exam’s technical properties make it difficult to use NAEP data to prove cause-and-effect claims about specific policies or instructional interventions.

    “It’s clearly not NAEP’s fault people misuse it, but it happens often enough that I feel compelled to call [such instances] ‘misnaepery,’ ” said Steven M. Glazerman, a senior fellow at Mathematica Policy Research, a Princeton, N.J.-based research and policy-evaluation nonprofit.

  • Mike678

    It’s misleading to discuss these scores without delving into all relevant changes that are also occurring. The education system may be a part of the problem, but can we rule out cultural and demographic shifts as major contributors?

    • Justin Katz

      That’s a reasonable point, but such qualifications tend to lump a bunch of considerations together so as to shift attention from one to the other.

      Let’s call overall proficiency 35% right now in RI. That’s a long, long way from 100%. Some portion of the gap has to do with students who just can’t meet the standard. As a complete guess, let’s say that brings the maximum realistic proficiency down to 80%. Let’s say cultural and demographic changes account for 2/3 of the remaining gap. That gets us to 50%.

      If even 15% of students are missing proficiency because of the educational system, addressing that problem would put us in line with first-in-the-nation Massachusetts. I don’t see how promoting such a possibility is misleading.

      As for policy causes, interpretations can vary, but I certainly find it conspicuous that RI hit its ceiling around the time that Chafee put a stop to reform at the unions’ behest. You can see something similar in Massachusetts, albeit at a higher level.

      • guest

        Do you have the comparable data for RI’s religious schools so we can comparison shop when we get our vouchers?

        • Justin Katz

          NAEP does have scores for private schools, although I don’t think they’re in Rhode Island. They are substantially higher, though. A better proxy is probably SATs, and there the lessons are pretty clear. Religiously affiliated schools do significantly better than public schools in RI, and RI public schools do worse than public schools nationally, while religiously affiliated private schools do a little better.

          The more important point, though, is that implementation of school choice would reduce the need for standardized testing because the system would have a more organic mechanism for accountability.

          • guest

            Why don’t you use the national statistics for NAEP? Don’t you think quoting your “paper” as an objective is a little self-serving?

            What is “a more organic mechanism for accountability”?

          • Justin Katz

            Do you mean “national statistics for SAT”? I linked to a document that already does the analysis that I would explain in a longer comment.

            An organic mechanism for accountability is families being able to choose their schools. If a school doesn’t keep parents happy, they go elsewhere, and the district loses money. If most families are essentially unable to do that, then the school system needs some way to measure success and hold employees accountable, and that means testing.

    • BasicCaruso

      Or how about left handed vs. right handed students? Clearly NEAP is the best method of measuring the effects of those differences.

      • Mike678

        It appears you have a bias against testing. From your poor reasoning skills and your apparent desire to play the fool, I’m guessing your bias stems from your poor test scores….

        • BasicCaruso

          You’re no psychometrician!

  • Rhett Hardwick

    I a, wondering. Is the NAEP considered a good test of proficiency, or is it only a means to compare state to state?

    Not sure how it is that Massachusetts compares.