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?

The results are in, and generally, they show slow, incremental improvement over time.

Scored on a scale of 0 to 500, NAEP tallies are divided into three achievement levels. Students whose scores fall into the basic category are considered to have "partial mastery" of the knowledge and skills tested, while those in the proficient category have shown "solid academic performance." The advanced category refers to students who have displayed "superior" ability and understanding [source: National Assessment Governing Board].

The latest reading and math assessments, conducted in 2011, showed very modest improvement from two years earlier. When looked at over longer time periods, however, the improvement is more noticeable [sources: NAEP, NAEP].

Fourth- and eighth-graders' math scores were up 20 points on average from 1990, the first year that the current test was given. In reading, scores have increased by four points among fourth graders since the test was first administered in 1992 and by five points among eighth-graders during the same time. Meanwhile, the percentage of students scoring at least "proficient" has steadily risen (40 percent of fourth-graders and 35 percent of eighth-graders in math; 34 percent in both groups for reading) in both subjects [sources: Strauss, National Assessment Governing Board].

While students' performance continues to improve overall, the gap between races remains wide, according to the latest NAEP results.

Reading scores revealed a whopping 25.5-point disparity on average between white and black students at both grade levels in 2011. Similarly, white students at both grade levels performed 28 points higher on average in math assessments than their black peers. The gap between white and Hispanic students was nearly as wide at the same time, with white students outscoring Hispanics by 23.5 points on average in reading and by 21.5 points in math. Asian students, who were separately categorized for the first time in 2011, achieved the highest scores among race groups in both subjects [sources: Strauss, NAEP, NAEP].

Then-President George W. Bush speaks on the fifth anniversary of the passage of the "No Child Left Behind" act while at the North Glen Elementary School, Maryland in 2006.
Then-President George W. Bush speaks on the fifth anniversary of the passage of the "No Child Left Behind" act while at the North Glen Elementary School, Maryland in 2006.
© Larry Downing/Reuters/Corbis

NAEP results indicate that only a little more than one-third of U.S. students are "proficient" in math and reading and that Grand Canyon-sized gaps in performance among race remain. Or, as one commentator put it, the results show that the "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) program in place since 2001 and aimed at beefing up test passage rates and shrinking learning divides has been "an abject failure" [source: Strauss]." Among other provisions, NCLB requires all public schools in the U.S. that receive federal funding to administer state-issued standardized tests each year and mandates that poor performing schools make certain efforts to increase scores. Educators and policymakers often look to NAEP performance to gauge whether the program is "working." But detractors argue that NCLB simply forces educators to focus on teaching students how to pass the tests rather on knowledge and learning [sources: Finn, Hobart].

Critics of NAEP say that the tests simply are not a good barometer of future success because they don't measure the qualities necessary for navigating life in and out of the classroom, such as interpersonal communication skills or resilience. Others go a step further by claiming that the NAEP's proficiency standards are completely arbitrary [sources: Whitehurst, Strauss].

Detractors typically lock in on the NAEP's definition of "proficient," which has been referred to as an "aspirational" goal rather than an indication of whether a child can adequately read, write and solve math problems. Indeed, a much higher share of students is often deemed "proficient" in various subjects via state-issued testing than under the nationwide assessments. That's likely because NAEP proficiency is a higher standard than mere "grade-level" performance. It's not exactly clear, however, why the bar is set all the way up there. In 2009, a University of Nebraska report scolded NCES for failing to clearly define just how assessment results should be interpreted and used [sources: Harvey, Hull].

Yet, even if the proficiency determination is flawed, the NAEP's strength remains its ability to track progress on the standardized tests year after year (after year, after year). Putting proficiency levels to the side, score comparisons show that students are improving in most subjects over time, albeit at a fairly slow rate [source: Harvey].

In the meantime, efforts are underway to enhance the current assessment system.

NCES is considering a variety of changes to the NAEP system that would allow the assessments to not only measure how students are doing, but why they are performing at certain levels and identify educational efforts that work [source: Finn].

One way administrators are doing that is by expanding the background questions asked of test takers and analyzing relationships between responses and performance. For example, a report on the 2011 science assessment shows that students who frequently worked "hands on" in science projects and classroom investigations generally scored higher than those who did not [sources: Finn,NCES].

These efforts, as one may imagine, have also drawn criticism from spectators who say that NAEP should simply report scores, rather than trying to diagnose the reasons for them. Education policy is messy, highly politicized territory, these critics say, and NCES should stick to what it does best [source: Finn].

At the same time, administrators and policy makers want to know how American students stack up against others around the world. NCES is examining ways to link and compare NAEP scores to those by students on similar international assessments. A recent study of 45 countries showed that in only six of them would a majority of students score "proficient" on NAEP's eighth-grade math test [sources: NCES, FairTest].

NCES is also looking to ensure that the assessments test relevant skills necessary for students to be prepared to compete in a global economy. In 2014, select students will for the first time take the new NAEP technology and engineering literacy assessment, an exam designed to gauge students' knowledge of technological principles, as well as their ability to use the principles to communicate and solve problems. The TEL assessment is the first completely computer-based NAEP test. It will include interactive scenario-based tasks, such as observing video of a model ecosystem and being asked to identify certain organisms [sources: NAEP, National Assessment Governing Board].

Author's Note: How the NAEP Works

If Americans are doing poorly on tests like the NAEP, it's not for lack of test taking. Nor is there a national drought on anxiety about test taking, if I am any example. Depending on how you look at it, I'm either one of those greatly blessed, highly unlucky or just plain weird people who never remembers his dreams. I occasionally wake up in the middle of the night and think "that sure was strange" about whatever bizarre scenario I had cooking in my head while catching some zzzs, but by the time morning comes it's been pushed to the non-graspable recesses of my brain. There are two exceptions to this rule. The first is a recurring dream in which I realize that I've completely forgotten to study for some extremely difficult and incredibly important exam which will no doubt determine the course of my life for decades to come. It typically ends in me sprinting in a mad dash toward some mythical classroom where I am doomed to burn out in a blaze of complete and utter failure. The other exception is the dream where I am falling to my untimely death and awake just before hitting the ground. I prefer that one.

Related Articles


  • FairTest. "Would Foreign Students Score Proficient on NAEP?" (May 2, 2013)
  • Finn, Chester. "NAEP: thermometer or diagnostician?" Thomas B. Fordham Institute. May 17, 2012. (April 28, 2013)
  • Harvey, James. "NAEP: A flawed benchmark producing the same old story." The Washington Post. Nov. 4, 2011. (April 28, 2013)
  • Hobart, Susan. "One Teacher's Cry: Why I Hate No Child Left Behind." The Progressive. Aig. 2008. (May 2, 2013)
  • Hull, Jim. "The proficiency debate: A guide to NAEP achievement levels." The Center for Public Education. June 17, 2008. (April 28, 2013)
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  • National Center for Education Statistics. "Science 2011." May 2012. (April 28, 2013)
  • National Center for Education Statistics. "The NAEP Primer: A Technical History of NAEP." (April 28, 2013)
  • National Center for Education Statistics. "What does the NAEP technology and engineering literacy (TEL) assessment measure?" Nov. 28, 2012. (April 28, 2013)
  • Strauss, Valerie. "What the new NAEP test results really tell us." The Washington Post. Nov. 1, 2011. (April 28, 2013)
  • Whitehurst, Grover J. "Is 'No Child Left Behind' Working?" The Brookings Institution. March 24, 2010. (April 28, 2013)