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Weighing the Evidence

Accurate and complete data on student performance can be difficult to obtain. For example, tests sometimes change from one implementation to the next, making it impossible to have objective comparisons of student groups over time. Also, many sources of quantitative information about student performance are not based on the entire school-age population. The SAT, for example, measures the aptitude of the college-bound population, not the whole school population.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the only nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas.


What is the purpose of public education?

Who makes major decisions affecting your childs education?

What do we really know about student achievement and school performance, and how do we find out more?

Who is delivering information on student achievement, and what is their motivation?

Weighing the evidence

How to get involved

Also known as the Nation’s Report Card, the NAEP is an integral part of the nation’s evaluation of the condition and progress of education. Most policy makers and scholars believe the NAEP is the best available source of information on how American children are performing in school.

NAEP long-term trend assessments measure students’ performance in mathematics, science, reading, and writing, and monitor trend lines first established thirty years ago. Because this same assessment has been administered at different times during NAEP history, it is possible to chart educational progress over three decades. The 1999 Long-Term Trend Report Card presents the results of the NAEP assessment in reading, mathematics, and science administered in 1999 to students aged 9, 13, and 17. Review the findings from this report and consider the questions following these findings.

Since 1973 students in all age groups achieved consistent gains in mathematics. Consistent gains started in the 1980s and continued in the 1990s.

The score gap in mathematics between black and white students narrowed in all three age groups. For Hispanics, the gap narrowed for 13- and 17- year-olds, but not 9-year-olds.

Nine and 13-year-olds are reading better than they did thirty years ago, while scores for 17-year-olds remain unchanged.

The score gaps in reading for blacks and whites narrowed for all three age groups. For Hispanics, the gap narrowed for 17-year-olds only.

In science, scores for 9-year-olds have risen since 1970; scores for 13-year-olds have remained unchanged; and scores for 17-year-olds have decreased.

The score gaps in science for blacks and whites narrowed for 9- and 13-year-olds only, while the gaps for whites and Hispanics remained unchanged.

For detailed statistics supporting these findings, see the 1999 Long-Term Trend Report at the National Center for Educational Statistics,

Questions for parents to consider today:

  • Major findings of the NAEP report show significant gains in all areas over the last thirty years, as well as a closing of the “achievement gap” between whites and minorities. Have these results been accurately reported in any media you follow? Compare these findings with reports on student achievement that you know about through the media.
  • Is the data presented here consistent with your opinions on national school performance?
  • Which is more valuable to you, data on your child’s achievement as compared to his or her peers, or as compared to a set standard?
  • If peers, what is an appropriate comparison group? Local peers? State peers? National peers? International peers?
  • What type of testing data is appropriate to share with your child?
  • Harvard University professor of education Richard Murnane acknowledges the NAEP evidence of increases in student learning, but claims that Americans think schools are doing poorly because expectations have changed since the NAEP started measuring student performance. Do you think this is true? If so, what do Americans expect from schools that they didn’t expect thirty years ago?

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