WASHINGTON – The leading U.S. test of student achievement finds just a quarter of fourth- and eighth-grade students are proficient or better in math and reading.
A study released Tuesday says the test is so flawed that students in countries that routinely score higher than U.S. students would show poorly as well.
Student achievement in math and reading in elementary and secondary schools is measured by the National Assessment for Educational Progress – referred to as “the nation's report card.” NAEP is considered the gold standard for its ability to administer tests nationally and across multiple grade levels.
Scores from the test,which is administered every two years,are advanced,proficient,basic and below basic. NAEP's findings influence numerous policies and act as a guiding light for individual state tests.
An annual education report by the Brookings Institution – a liberal public policy think tank – says that federal benchmarks used in scoring students in math and reading are causing excessive numbers of students to score at less than proficient.
Tom Loveless,chief researcher and author of the report,called NAEP's proficient threshold “out of whack.”
“I've always wondered how the percentage of kids proficient on NAEP could look so awful,” Loveless said. “Now it is clear – NAEP's proficiency cutscores are set too high.”
The term “cutscore” refers to the dividing line between the test-score levels.
Charles Smith,executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board,oversees the policy behind NAEP testing. He said questions appearing on tests go through a five-year vetting cycle in which professors,economists and bankers evaluate them.
“We're quite comfortable that the testing is fair,” Smith said. “These questions are not just something we dream up.”
Smith,who has not seen the final version of the Brookings report,said critics fail to understand the complexity of developing the test. He said he has heard debate about the test since its inception.
The Brookings report finds NAEP is not just out of sync in the United States,but with the rest of the world,about which Smith said he is highly skeptical.
For example,Singapore is the highest-scoring reading and math country in the world on an international standard test,but Brookings' researchers say the country would still fall short of an advanced NAEP score.
In Norway,another high-scoring country,91 percent of children would score below proficient,and less than a quarter of students in England and Scotland would make the benchmark,the report states.
“NAEP needs a lot of reform,” Loveless said. “If the world's best school systems don't measure up to NAEP's standards,then maybe there is something wrong with the standards themselves.”
The study also calls it unrealistic to expect that schools will make rapid progress in bringing students to “proficient” levels,as required under the No Child Left Behind law,which aims to bring all students to the proficient level for reading in math by 2014.
Although the NAEP scores have no bearing on NCLB,Smith said NAEP serves as a “second opinion” on state test scores
The Brookings report also says enrollment in private schools has decreased.
“Enrollment patterns in private schools have been declining over the past half-century,especially in the transition to high schools,” said Pietro Nivola,Brookings vice president.
At its peak in 1965,private school enrollment served 5.6 million,dropping to 2.3 million by 2003,the most recent year for which numbers are available. Those are some of the lowest numbers since the 1940s.
Much of the decline can be attributed to a drop in Catholic school attendance,particularly in urban areas,according to the report. The report attributes the decline to rising tuition costs,changing social forces and the dwindling number of Catholic schools and nuns who teach there.
Charter schools,which are publicly funded,are replacing Catholic institutions but not at the same rate that private schools are disappearing,Loveless said.
Students tend to leave private schools when they go to high school,because that's when tuition jumps. Parents are also more open to allowing their children to choose public over private schools,the report finds.
According to a 2004 study by a group of professional educators,Phi Delta Kappa,and Gallup,a majority of Americans believe that private schools are superior to public schools. That view is consistent with research showing those students achieve at higher levels compared to their public school peers,even when parental income is taken into account.
The National Catholic Educational Association estimates 600 Catholic schools closed from 2000 to 2006,citing increased expenses in most cases.