If NAEP “Proficient” Means “Grade Level Proficiency,” Then America’s Private Schools Are in Trouble
Former TV anchor and current privatizing reform conduit Campbell Brown believes that a student’s achieving the level “proficient” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) equates with that student being “at grade level” or (more precisely, according to her) having achieved “grade level proficiency.”
In a May 16, 2016, Slate interview, Brown said the following:
Two out of three eighth graders in this country cannot read or do math at grade level. We are not preparing our kids for what the future holds.
As she introduces an article written by Carol Burris, Washington Post education writer Valerie Strauss sums up the social media upheaval that ensued over Brown’s equating NAEP “proficient” with being “at grade level”:
Another day, another fight in the education world. This one is worth delving into because it is really not about who said what but about fundamental understandings — and misunderstandings — of standardized testing data and how it drives policy.
This one started when education activist Campbell Brown said that two-thirds of U.S. eighth graders are below grade level in reading and math. Tom Loveless, a former Harvard professor and teacher who researches student achievement, then tweeted that he has never seen data showing that, and asked Brown to explain her sourcing. She said that she was referring to proficiency rates on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
NAEP, as the test is known, is sometimes referred to as “the nation’s report card” because it is seen as the most consistent measure of U.S. student achievement since the 1990s. It is administered every two years to groups of U.S. students in the fourth and eighth grades, and less frequently to high school students. When Loveless told her that NAEP proficiency scores do not refer to grade level, a social media fight ensued between Campbell and her critics.
In this post, Carol Burris, a former award-winning high school principal who got involved in the Twitter exchange, explains why the substance of this debate matters.
I asked Brown to comment about her statement that two out of three eighth graders cannot read or do math at grade level and why she thinks NAEP proficiency means grade level. She said in an emailed response, which you can see in full below, that “if I were trying to be completely and utterly precise then I would have specified ‘grade-level proficiency,’ instead of ‘grade level’ in the context of NAEP score,” and that “any reasonable person or parent” would understand what she meant.
The achievement level preceding “proficient” is “basic,” and it is “at or above basic” that the bulk of students’ scores tend to fall.
What Brown erroneously proposes is that NAEP “proficient” equals “grade level proficiency” and that not achieving NAEP “proficient” equals “not at grade-level proficiency.”
If the above were true, then it is not only America’s public schools that one must worry about.
Brown must also fault America’s private schools– the schools where admission is clearly selective and parents and schools negotiate to choose each other– but also where schools can more freely deselect troublesome students. (Brown should know as much; at 16, she was expelled from a private school for sneaking off of campus.)
If Brown were talking about America’s private schools in her Slate interview, her words might have been as follows:
One out of two private school eighth graders in this country cannot read nor do math at grade level. We are not preparing our kids for what the future holds.
Is she willing to erroneously assert as much based on a faulty interpretation of NAEP grade 8 percentages of private school students scoring “proficient” or above in math and reading?
Let’s see if she is.
The data below can be obtained using this National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) search engine.
The number of private school students taking the 2015 NAEP was too small for calculating private school NAEP proficiency in 2015. However, in 2013, 57 percent of grade 8 private school students scored proficient or higher in reading, up from 54 percent in 2011 and 52 percent in 2009. In fact, since the inception of the NAEP grade 8 reading test in 1992 to the most recent private school data in 2013, the percentage of private school students achieving proficiency or higher has only risen from 48 to 57 percent. (See all of this and more here.)
Following Brown’s logic, such means that roughly “one in two private school eighth graders in this country cannot read at grade level.” But such an indictment would be baloney.
And there’s more potential baloney to come.
In 2013, 47 percent of grade 8 private school students scored proficient or higher in math, down from 48 percent in 2011 and the same as 47 percent in 2009. Since the inception of the NAEP grade 8 math test in 1990 to the most recent private school data in 2013, the percentage of private school students achieving proficiency or higher has risen from 17 to the 2011 peak of 48 percent. Between 2003 and 2013, the percentage of private school students achieving proficiency or higher has only moved from 43 to 48 percent (2011)– and back down to 47 percent (2013). But the margin of error is greater than a point, which means that 47 and 48 percent could be considered “the same.” (This data and more is available here.)
Again, if she wanted to panic America about the state of its private schools, Brown could declare that “one in two private school eighth graders in this country cannot do math at grade level.”
For grade 4 math, the story is similar: In 2013, 48 percent of grade 4 private school students achieved proficient or above, which happens to be the same percentage in 2007. (See that data and more here.)
As for grade 4 reading: In 2013, 49 percent of grade 4 private school students achieved proficient or above. This percentage has not moved much since the inception of the NAEP reading test in 1992 (45 percent). (See that data and more here.)
I guess only one in two private school fourth graders can read nor do math at grade level. Or not.
I’m going to go with the words of Tom Loveless and research of Gary Phillips that Carol Burris included in her Washington Post article on NAEP:
Loveless, who has written extensively about NAEP, said the following in his email correspondence with me:
“The cut point on NAEP is much too high [to be considered grade level].
In a 2007 study, researcher Gary Phillips projected where scores on the TIMSS, a series of international math and science given to kids around the world, would land on the NAEP scale. He estimated that 27 percent of Singapore’s 8th graders would fail to meet the NAEP proficient cut score in math. At the time, Singapore was the highest scoring country in the world. Japan — not exactly a weak math country–would see only 57 percent meet proficiency; 43 percent would “fail.” You can read more about that study on pp. 10-13 of the 2007 Brookings Report authored by Loveless that you can find here.
NAEP “proficient” does not equate with either “at grade level” or “grade-level proficiency,” even if Brown insists that it does– and even if she is willing to publicly declare war on America’s private schools in an effort to justify her error.
How about it, Campbell? Are America’s private schools producing one in two 4th and 8th graders who cannot read nor do math, uh, with grade-level proficiency??
Coming June 24, 2016, from TC Press: