The state of education in the U.S. is a topic of great interest today, discussed in homes, schools, and the halls of Congress. More than ever before, education is crucial for ensuring that our children will have the knowledge and skills necessary to be productive members of the global economy and effective citizens of a thriving democracy. However, we can only know if our nation is succeeding in educating our children effectively if there is impartial, trusted information about what students know and can do, whether their performance has improved or declined, and which factors may influence this performance. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is uniquely designed to provide this information.
Established in 1969, NAEP (also known as the "Nation's Report Card") was created to fill an important void in our education system. NAEP provides a common yardstick for measuring the progress of students’ education across the country. The nation's states, districts, and schools use differing standardized assessments to measure student progress, so their results are not directly comparable. Many of these local assessments are themselves periodically altered in ways that make them inappropriate for measuring progress over time and, additionally, few of these tests yield results that can be systematically associated with study habits, teacher practices, or school policies.
NAEP asks the same questions in every state, thus making state comparisons possible, and uses questionnaires to gather data about the educational practices of the students and the schools in order to contextualize the assessment data. Moreover, the NAEP long-term trend assessment allows the mathematics and reading performance of today’s students to be compared with that since the early 1970s.
Schools and students are carefully selected to be in the NAEP samples according to demographic characteristics that make the samples collectively representative of all the nation's students in grades 4, 8, and 12 (or at ages 9, 13, and 17 for the long-term trend assessment) in public and private schools. The participation of each school and student selected helps ensure that NAEP truly reflects the great diversity of our nation's student population. For example, NAEP reports results for male and female students, Black students and White students, and students in different regions of the country. Samples are selected using a complex sampling design.
Schools and students selected to participate in NAEP samples provide important data that will increase the information available to educators and policymakers about the success of their elementary and secondary education programs. NAEP produces data in a number of different subject areas for the nation, participating states, and some urban school districts. The reports and data derived from the NAEP assessment are used for a variety of purposes by education leaders, policymakers, the press, curriculum specialists, teachers, researchers, and others.
NAEP results span many demographic groups and combinations of demographic factors. Since many of the groups on which NAEP reports are relatively small within the overall student population, these results may be based on small samples, which makes the participation of each and every student crucial to ensure that NAEP gives accurate performance estimates for all population groups.
With high levels of student participation, NAEP can help provide answers to such important questions as:
NAEP makes it easy for schools and students to participate. The NAEP assessment and all necessary materials are brought to the school, administered, and processed by NAEP field staff. NAEP requires administrative help from a designated NAEP coordinator in each participating school, but NAEP field staff assigned to each school ensure that work for the assessment takes up as little school staff time as possible. Principals and teachers are asked only to complete questionnaires, either online or in paper copies, about their schools' characteristics and their education, and classroom procedures. Teachers may also be asked to collect information about the students who are classified as English language learners (ELL) and students with disabilities.
The NAEP assessments themselves are designed to reduce classroom intrusion. Most of them require approximately 90 minutes from start to finish, although some, such as computer-based assessments, can take up to 120 minutes. Additionally, the assessment’s sampling procedure ensures that in most states or districts only a few schools are asked to participate; thus, the majority of schools and students within a district are in no way burdened. Participating schools have the opportunity to sign up for MySchool, a website designed to notify schools about assessment activities.
NAEP thanks both schools and students for their participation in several ways. Educational materials used in the assessments such as atlases, science kits, and pencils are given to the schools for their use. Each student will receive a certificate of participation for his efforts on the assessment.
The assessment questions and NAEP data are kept strictly confidential. Students do not receive individual scores, and reports for individual schools are not prepared. Students' names are not on NAEP materials that leave the schools. NAEP reports results for the nation, for the states, and for selected urban districts only. Federal law specifies severe penalties for anyone revealing the identity of the children taking NAEP. In the long history of the NAEP assessment, that security has never been broken.