How the NAEP Works

A grade-school girl gets busy with her test. How does the NAEP evaluate student performance in the U.S.?
A grade-school girl gets busy with her test. How does the NAEP evaluate student performance in the U.S.?
© Richard Hutchings/Corbis

Depending on how little Johnny is doing in school, report card day can be a joyous, reaffirming occasion or a harrowing trip to the land of untapped potential and bed before dinner. But Johnny isn't the only one being tested. Nicknamed "the nation's report card, " the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) periodically tracks American students over the course of decades in an effort to measure the academic well-being of school children, their state education systems and the country as a whole [source: National Center for Education Statistics].

NAEP tests are designed to gauge students' achievement in a variety of subjects, from math and science to reading, writing, history and geography. By uniformly testing a representative sample of students that spans racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines, NAEP not only provides general feedback on where kids are excelling and where they may need additional training, but also looks to uncover any gaps in learning and achievement among various student groups [sources: NCES, NCES, Finn].

In 1969, the Education Commission of the States administered citizenship, science and writing performance exams of 17-year-old high school students that set the groundwork for the current system of scholastic appraisal. Today, the NAEP is conducted by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) [source: NCES].

NAEP includes two types of assessments: "main" exams and those measuring long-term trends. The main assessments are periodically administered to fourth, eighth and (on a trial basis as of 2013) 12th-graders, testing performance in nine subjects. Results are published on a national level and, in some subjects, for select urban districts. The long-term NAEP, meanwhile, is conducted every four years and tests 9-, 13- and 17-year-olds in math and reading, comparing results with students since the 1970s [source: NCES].

The assessments remain largely the same from year to year and any changes are closely monitored. In keeping with its focus on general results among various sets of students, NCES does not provide scores for individual students or schools [source: NCES].

So what has the NAEP told us about American students' capacity and progress over four-plus decades?