Massachusetts gets demographic boost, but still scores at top

Amidst all the debate about which annual standardized test to use in Massachusetts — and whether we are testing too much or attaching too many consequences to its outcomes — new results are out from the one test that allows for direct comparisons among all states.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, is often termed “the nation’s report card” because the test is given every two years to representative samples of 4th and 8th grade students across the country.

What do the results say about how Massachusetts is doing? By most any measure, students here do very well. Bay State students have been at or near the top among all states in 4th and 8th grade reading and math scores. This year, Massachusetts students scored tops in three of the four categories, but dropped one point behind New Hampshire in 8th grade reading.

Nationally, there was a drop in math scores for both 4th and 8th graders, the first such decline since 1990. Reading scores also dipped for 8th graders, while they were flat for 4th graders. “It’s obviously bad news,” Michael Petrilli, the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington education policy think tank, told the New York Times.

It’s very hard to identify any single factor behind test score changes.

The Times reports that education officials cite the recent adoption by more than 40 states of the new Common Core education standards as a possible explanation for the drop in math scores. The NAEP math test for 4th grade, for example, includes questions on topics that are included in the Common Core standards for that age and so students may well have not been taught the material needed to answer them.

The Times also points to another factor that might be at play: demographic changes taking place in which schools are educating more Hispanic and low-income students, groups that perform more poorly than their white and more affluent counterparts. About a quarter of all public school students in the country are now Hispanic, up dramatically from 10 percent in 1990. Children from low-income households also make-up an increasing share of the school population, reports the Times.

An important study released this week by the Urban Institute digs more deeply into this topic. The report, “Breaking the Curve,” looks at NAEP scores when taking account of demographic changes taking place and demographic differences among states. The study shows that overall NAEP scores from 2003 to 2013 increased more than would have been expected considering the increases states saw in historically lower-performing population groups. (The study did not have access to the just-released 2015 scores.)

It also showed that demographically similar students vary considerably in their performance from state to state. When adjusted for demographics, Texas and Florida students, who have overall average performance on NAEP, outperform their demographic peers enough to move to third and fourth place among all states.

Massachusetts and New Jersey, which ranked at the top in raw NAEP scores for 2013, maintained their positions even after adjusting for demographic factors, though the margins by which each state led were reduced.

The study suggests efforts in Massachusetts, ushered in by the 1993 Education Reform Act, to raise standards and implement a rigorous accountability system have driven big improvements in student achievement.

The Urban Institute study suggests that some portion of the top ranking Massachusetts has enjoyed in student performance can be explained by the state’s demographics — a lower than average minority student population and higher average family income. But even when those factors are accounted for, Massachusetts students scored at the top among all states, suggesting schools here are doing something right above and beyond any advantages students may arrive with.




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