Indiana did as good or better than the U.S. average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or the “nation’s report card,” this year compared to 2013, while many states saw significant drops.
For 2015, the state was ranked fourth in the nation in fourth-grade math and 11th for eighth-grade math, up from a ranking of fourth and 19th, respectively, in 2013. In reading, Indiana students ranked 10th for fourth-grade reading and 16th for eighth-grade reading, up from 15th and 27th. Back in 2013, the state made huge jumps in scores that some questioned the validity of at the time, said Mark O’Malley, the state’s NAEP coordinator.
“That was a big deal and that made the headlines,” O’Malley said. “As Indiana repeats again the fourth highest math score in fourth grade, it kind of validates the student performance that has happened, so that is exciting. It’s not a phenomenon, it didn’t happen by chance.”
None of the change in this year’s score have “statistical significance” from 2013, meaning they don’t necessarily indicate student achievement is any lower or higher this year than last time — likely the change is due to chance, O’Malley said.
However he said that’s not necessarily a bad thing given the state’s more challenging academic standards and big changes to state tests that can cause some chaos in the classroom.
“Indiana held on and plateaued,” O’Malley said. “The state assessment is up and down, and in the classroom it’s just so chaotic and frustrating. The students were able to hold on to their student performance in the NAEP assessment, and all the other states around us, their scores went down dramatically.”
Compared to 2000, Indiana students have measurably improved in fourth-grade math and reading and in eighth-grade math over 15 years. Eighth-grade reading scores aren’t significantly different from 2000.
Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Hampshire outranked Indiana in fourth-grade math scores, yet the differences are very small. Indiana English-learners achieved scores 16 points higher than the national average among other students learning English as a new language.
In general, Indiana saw strong performance from English-learners and students with special needs. All states are required by the federal government to take NAEP, which is given to sample of students every other year. About 12,000 students took the test in Indiana, O’Malley said.
In some states, lower scores might be affected by having more students with special needs and English-learners taking the test, but Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, said that shouldn’t be considered a problem.
“This is not a problem or a deficit, it’s a huge opportunity to change the lives of young people through educational opportunities,” Duncan said. “We should be proud schools are becoming more diverse, and we should be proud to hold ourselves accountable for the education of all students.”
Nationwide, fourth- and eighth-graders posted slightly lower scores on the math and reading tests than in 2013, the last time the tests were administered.
“We’re trying not to read too much in a decline in at this point,” said Peggy Carr, acting commission of the National Center of Education Statistics, which administers NAEP. “We understand it’s a pattern consistent across many states, but … we don’t know yet if these changes we’re talking about today are long term.”
Scores in both subjects have risen significantly over time, suggesting that the average American student’s skills have improved. Math scores have risen by 27 points out of 500 and reading scores have risen by 10 points since the first time the exams were given, but achievement gaps between black and white students have not narrowed substantially.
U.S. students have taken the NAEP exams for decades in an effort to provide a consistent measure of student performance at a time when states’ standards varied widely.
Now, many states are in the process of adopting new tests that reflect shared standards, potentially allowing for more detailed and frequent comparisons of students across the country. That means for some states, NAEP now serves the dual role of testing student performance across states and assessing whether states have achieved their goal of crafting more “accurate” measures of student achievement with their new exams.
Yet because Indiana abandoned Common Core for state-specific standards in 2014, such comparisons between Indiana’s standards and those in other states aren’t really possible. That makes NAEP even more valuable to educators and policymakers to keep tabs on how students are doing compared to the rest of the country, O’Malley said.
“This is one thing that every state takes in the same format, it’s administered the same,” he said. “It’s the only thing left that … can measure student achievement universally.”
Chalkbeat Indiana is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.