COMET • Vol. 4, No. 30 – 14 November 2003


(1) “National Report Card Shows California Students’ Scores Improve Significantly for Math; Unchanged for Reading

Source: California Department of Education


On 13 November 2003, the National Center for Educational Statistics reported that California students made real improvement in their mathematic scores, but remain relatively unchanged in their reading scores based on the latest National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests. The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics administers the NAEP tests, better known as the Nation’s Report Card.

“While I continue to believe our state standard tests are a more accurate reflection of our children’s progress in the classroom, I am pleased with California’s results in mathematics,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell. “On the other hand, our reading results highlight the continued efforts we need to place on ensuring our lowest performing students are getting the reading intervention they need to improve.”

The total score for the math portion of the NAEP test is 500 points. The last time this test was administered was in 2000 and those scores are being compared against the 2003 scores. Grade 4 average math scores improved significantly this year, up 14 scale score points from 213 to 227. This compares to a 10-point jump nationally from 224 to 234. Grade 8 math scores also improved, up eight points from 259 to 267. This compares to a four-point jump nationally from 272 to 276. Grades 4 and 8 math subgroup scores also improved significantly, up to 25 points in all subgroups including gender, ethnicity, and English learners.

The total score for the reading portion of the NAEP test is 500 points. The last time this test was administered was in 2002 and those scores are being compared against the 2003 scores. Grades 4 and 8 average reading scores remain either unchanged or saw a slight increase or decrease of one point. A difference of less than five or six points is considered statistically unchanged depending on the sample size. This is similar to what happened on a national level. However, there were significant developments among several subgroups when compared to 1998 scores. While overall grades 4 and 8 reading scores remained relatively unchanged for all California students, grade 4 reading scores increased for all ethnic subgroups leading with Asians (up 13 points), Hispanics (up 10), blacks (up 7), and whites (up 7). Grade 8 reading scores saw a significant change only among Asians (up 7). Some of the increases may be a result of higher statewide participation in the 2003 NAEP tests. As a result of a federal rule change, almost every school selected for the assessment (99 percent) participated in the now mandatory NAEP testing.

The Nation’s Report Card is the only ongoing project to monitor trends in student achievement at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. In this round of testing, only grades 4 and 8 math and reading were assessed. The next state NAEP report card for math and reading scores involving California students will be in 2005. The 2003 assessments were mandatory for all schools in districts receiving Title I funds under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Title I provides funding for school staff and programs to help raise student achievement in high-poverty schools. The National Report Card results are online at

(2) Three Educational Agencies Launch a Groundbreaking Program to Help High School Students Enter College

Source: California State University


On November 4, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell announced the culmination of a three-year collaboration among the California Department of Education, State Board of Education, and California State University to better prepare high school students for college.

“We have developed a groundbreaking Early Assessment Program for high school students who need help boosting their proficiency in English and math,” said O’Connell. “This will help our students more easily enter any California State University,” said O’Connell.

The Early Assessment Program (EAP) combines CSU’s placement standards with high school standards, and test items included in an augmented California Standards Tests in English and math. Eleventh graders can volunteer to take these early assessments to determine whether they need additional preparation for college. This way, the students can complete any needed preparation in a more challenging high school senior year, which will help make their transition to college seamless.

“By connecting the CSU’s college placement standards in English and math to existing school tests, we believe we can better determine if students are ready for college,” said CSU Chancellor Charles B. Reed. “The better prepared students are when they come to the CSU, the better the chances are that they will succeed and graduate.”

“This is a major achievement for K-12 policymakers and the CSU system, but the biggest winners in this historic partnership are California’s high school students,” said State Board of Education President Reed Hastings. “Our students will now be able to get early warning in the 11th grade about where they need academic help and to be able to address those needs in their senior year. In that way, students won’t be locked out of college even before they have a chance to get in because of the lack of academic preparation.”

The three education leaders signed and sent a letter jointly to superintendents, high school principals, and school boards around the state announcing the implementation of EAP. This follows the successful launch of a pilot project during the 2002-03 school year involving 100 high schools statewide that volunteered to participate in EAP. The schools’ students took the augmented California Standards Tests in reading, writing, and mathematics. They will receive their test reports by the end of this year indicating whether they are ready for CSU college-level work or need some additional preparation. In the spring of 2004, EAP will be available to all high school juniors in the state who are taking 11th grade English and math courses required for admission to CSU. By 2007, CSU trustees have set a goal that 90-percent of all entering freshmen will be ready for college in English and math based on CSU placement standards.

This collaborative process started in 2000 at the request of the California Education Round Table, representing the leaders of all educational segments in the state. The process involved the California Department of Education, State Board of Education, CSU Chancellor’s Office, and representatives of the CSU Academic Senate. The Round Table also had the support and participation of the University of California system wide office, its faculty, and an Intersegmental Coordinating Committee.


(1) The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)

Source: National Center for Education Statistics


The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as “the Nation’s Report Card,” is the only nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas. Since 1969, assessments have been conducted periodically in reading, mathematics, science, writing, U.S. history, civics, geography, and the arts…

The NAEP mathematics assessment was developed and reviewed by mathematics educators and curriculum and assessment experts, to capture the goals of the mathematics framework. The framework, which describes the goals of the assessment and what kinds of exercises it ought to feature, was created by the National Assessment Governing Board through a comprehensive national process involving teachers, administrators, and state education officials. The Mathematics Development Committee was instrumental in the development of the assessment.

The assessment consisted of the following types of questions:

* Multiple-choice questions designed to assess students’ mathematical knowledge and skills;

* Constructed-response questions, including short constructed-response questions that required students to provide answers to computation problems or to describe solutions in one or two sentences, and extended constructed-response questions that required students to provide longer responses when answering the questions.

In 1996, 2000, and 2003, approximately 50 percent of student assessment time was devoted to constructed response questions.

NAEP also gives background questionnaires to teachers, students, and schools that are part of the NAEP sample. Responses to these questionnaires give NAEP information about school policies affecting mathematics instruction, as well as information about schools’ educational resources.

(2) The Nation’s Report Card: Mathematics Highlights 2003


In 2003, the National Assessment of Educational Progress administered the mathematics assessment to approximately 343,000 students in grades 4 and 8 throughout the nation. The national sample assessed students in approximately 7,151 schools at grade 4 and 5,711 at grade 8.

A full-color publication in tabloid format is available for download (PDF file) at   This report present highlights of the NAEP 2003 mathematics assessment. It describes the assessment content and presents major assessment results as average scale scores and as percentages of students scoring at or above achievement levels at grades 4 and 8 for the nation and participating states and jurisdictions. It also presents performance results for selected subgroups of the samples.

Note:  Also see for more information about the NAEP-Mathematics 2003 results.

(3) “Statement on NAEP 2003 Mathematics and Reading Results” by John H. Stevens (Member, National Assessment Governing Board)


The 2003 NAEP results are encouraging news. Particularly in math, something positive is happening in our schools…

Since the year 2000, the last time the NAEP mathematics assessment was given, the students at the bottom have made the greatest improvement. The largest gains have been achieved by fourth grade students in the lowest 10 percent or the lowest quarter of the test score distribution. The lower-scoring students in the 8th grade also have made substantial improvements.

In just three years, the proportion of black fourth graders reaching the Basic achievement level in mathematics rose from 36 to 54 percent nationwide. Among Hispanic students, whose number has increased enormously, the proportion reaching Basic in fourth grade math rose from 42 percent in 2000 to 62 percent in 2003.

The overall picture is encouraging because not only did the lower-scoring groups improve, but higher-scoring students made gains too, although at a somewhat slower rate. This means that the gaps in math have diminished in the past three years–between the highest tenth and lowest tenth and between different racial groups. Nobody has been “held back” so somebody else can improve.

In reading, unfortunately, the situation is less clear. This year, 2003, is the first time that a subject has been tested by NAEP two years in a row. It is unrealistic to expect dramatic changes in one year–particularly for the large groups of students in a state or in the nation on which NAEP reports. And the 2003 reading assessment shows very little change from 2002.

It is important that the gains made in fourth grade reading from 1998 and 2000 to 2002 have been sustained. And here again the greatest improvements were made at the lower end of the test score distribution and among black and Hispanic students, whose performance historically has lagged.

The situation recently in 8th grade reading is less positive. Even though there was some gain in 8th grade reading achievement from 1992 to 1998, the overall performance has been essentially flat over the past five years. It’s been flat all up and down the test score distribution, and between the 2002 and 2003 assessments there was even a slight downturn at the 10th and 25th percentiles. And even where there have been gains in reading, they have been much less substantial and much less pervasive than the gains in math.

I think one point that can explain the difference is that development in math depends mostly on what happens in the schools and in the math classes and math lessons that students get in school. But reading development depends on many interactions and experiences–on what happens in school and what happens at home, on what students do with their friends when they aren’t in school or at home. It is influenced, powerfully, by the culture and values, the interests and knowledge that students get from their families, peers, communities, and the wider society.

In school, after students learn to decode, which they must do well, developing good readers does not depend only on specific reading lessons but on the reading, writing, and thinking students do throughout the curriculum. Where students’ experience and knowledge is limited, where they don’t grow up in a language-rich environment, schools have to compensate.

One other factor that clearly affects reading performance more than math is English-language ability since NAEP is a test of reading in English. From 1998 to 2003, the proportion of 8th graders tested by NAEP who are classified by their schools as limited-English proficient (or LEP) rose from 2 percent to 5 percent of the national sample, and this tends, of course, to hold down the overall average scores.

However, non-LEP students have shown no significant change in 8th grade reading achievement since 1998. The average scores of whites and blacks, as well as those of Hispanics, have shown no change. The racial gaps in 8th grade reading are just about as wide as they were five years ago, and, in fact, they haven’t budged since the current version of the NAEP reading assessment was first given in 1992.

So where have gains been made and where do weaknesses persist?

As you may know, NAEP samples a very wide range of content, but it is not a detailed diagnostic exam, which can pinpoint particular problems. Through the NAEP achievement levels, however, we can get some sense of the skills and abilities students have mastered and where they still fall short. This should point to improvements in our schools that will help all our students achieve at higher levels.

In math, at the Basic achievement level, where there have been major gains, students understand math concepts and are able to perform math operations. In fourth grade they can do simple whole-number computations and solve some simple real-world problems. In 8th grade at the Basic level, arithmetic has improved so students can solve problems accurately with whole numbers, decimals, fractions, and percents.

The proportion of students reaching the Basic level has increased dramatically. In fourth grade it has gone up from just half of all students in 1990 to about two-thirds in 2000 to more than three-quarters this year. In 8th grade the proportion reaching Basic has climbed from about half in 1990 to more than two-thirds now.

This is real progress. The fact that so many students now reach the Basic level is very important, encouraging news. But that raises the question of where do they go next. The answer, of course, is the NAEP Proficient level, which requires something more.

To reach Proficient on NAEP, students must be able to apply the math they’ve learned to different, often unfamiliar situations, to set up problems as well as to solve what they are given. At fourth grade this includes being able to make sure that any answers they get are reasonable. At eighth grade, students at the Proficient level are able to reason clearly, to make inferences, and to apply the math they’ve learned to solve complex problems.

This next step–applying and reasoning–is where many students fall short, and where our schools have to focus their next efforts.

Over the 1990s and in the past three years there has been a substantial increase in the proportion of students reaching the Proficient level. Overall, in fourth grade, it has risen from just 13 percent in 1990 to 24 percent in 2000, and up to 32 percent this year. In eighth grade nationwide, the proportion of students reaching the Proficient level has climbed from 15 percent in 1990 to 29 percent this year. But it is here that the racial gaps are much greater and it is here that much more work must be done.

For example, the proportion of black fourth graders reaching Proficient has climbed from just 1 percent in 1990 to 5 percent in 2000 to 10 percent in 2003. In the last three years the proportion of Hispanics reaching this level rose from 7 to 16 percent. But among white fourth graders 43 percent now reach the Proficient level; among Asians it’s 48 percent. The progress is encouraging, but the gaps are still very wide, and we as a nation will have to deal with them if we want all children to have a chance for a successful future.

In reading there is similar situation. Essentially, the NAEP reading assessment is a test of reading comprehension. At the Basic achievement level in fourth grade, students can understand the overall meaning of what they have read and pick out some details to support their understanding. At the Basic level in eighth grade, where the text is more complicated, they can identify main ideas and recap the relationships in a story.

But the Proficient achievement level requires something more. Again, as in math, it is the ability to analyze and reason and extend, to draw inferences and make trenchant summaries, not just to provide details. At the Proficient level in 8th grade reading, students should be able to discern themes and analyze motives, and to draw connections between what they read on the test and other things they have read and learned. In other words, Proficient reading requires the ability to analyze and interpret, to apply what is read not just retell it.

And it is at this level that many students fall short, that progress has been slow, and where the racial/ethnic gaps are most disturbing. Among 8th graders, about 40 percent of whites and Asians read at or above the Proficient level, compared to 13 percent of black students and 15 percent of Hispanics. Ability to comprehend and use what is read is vital to success in high school and college. When students lack this ability at the end of middle school or junior high, there are bound to be serious problems for them later on and for our efforts to achieve a more equitable society…

For the first time we now have NAEP reading and math achievement data for the same year and we have a time series of state-by-state results that goes back more than a decade. This gives us a chance to see where the greatest gains have been made and to try to understand and explain any patterns.

First, the most obvious. The gains have been much greater in mathematics than in reading, and these math gains have been really quite tremendous in the early elementary grades up to grade four, somewhat less in the middle school grades up to grade 8…

For the first time this year, students in all 50 states participated in the National Assessment of Educational Progress as part of the requirements under No Child Left Behind. There are no penalties or rewards attached to the NAEP results. But they are an important part of the system for keeping track of the patterns and trends in student achievement in our nation, in the states, and among the various groups that are served by our schools.

The tests themselves don’t change the schools. Their teachers and students and parents do that. But the tests are crucial in providing the information they all need to make good decisions and help our students learn more…