The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), administered by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), has played a major role in evaluating what U.S. students know and can do in various subjects for decades.

NAEP uses three achievement levels (*NAEP Basic*,
*NAEP Proficient*,
*NAEP Advanced*) in reporting results. Each achievement level is denoted by a score range and defined in terms of knowledge and skills that students must show through their performance.

The
*NAEP Basic* level represents partial mastery of the prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for solid academic performance (i.e.,
*NAEP Proficient*). Students performing below
*NAEP Basic* do not demonstrate at least partial mastery of these skills.

Over the last decade, NAEP has revealed a concerning trend: increasing numbers of students in key subjects like reading and mathematics are not reaching even the
*NAEP Basic* achievement level, which denotes partial mastery of knowledge and skills prerequisite for solid academic performance. This trend is seen at the national, state, and district levels.^{1}

In the latest assessment results (2019), for example, 31 percent of 8th-grade students performed below
*NAEP Basic* in mathematics, and 27 percent did so in reading. This means that more than one million 8th-grade students in our nation were not fulfilling minimal academic expectations for their subject matter in 2019.^{2}

Furthermore, the percentage of students performing below the
*NAEP Basic* level was much higher among certain student groups and jurisdictions. In the 2019 grade 8 mathematics assessment, for example, more than 50 percent of students in certain race/ethnicity groups, 45 percent in certain states, and 70 percent in certain Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) districts failed to reach
*NAEP Basic*.^{3}

This blog post is the first in a three-part series highlighting growing concerns about “below
*NAEP Basic* performance.” It introduces what we know about below
*NAEP Basic* performance. The aim of the
second post is to shed light on efforts at NCES to learn more about this problem, and the
third post provides useful Institute of Education Sciences resources for educators, parents, researchers, and policymakers use to tackle this issue together.

Figure 1 shows the national percentages of 8th-grade students performing at each NAEP achievement level and below the
*NAEP Basic* level on the mathematics assessment. The percentage of students performing below
*NAEP Basic* was smaller in 2019 than in the early 1990s, when it approached 50 percent. However, since 2013, the percentage of students below
*NAEP Basic* has consistently increased.

*Figure 1 National trend in 8th-grade NAEP mathematics achievement-level results*

While the magnitude of the increase in the percentage of students performing below
*NAEP Basic* varies (see figure 2), similar increases were observed between 2013 and 2019 in other grades as well as in the reading assessment.

*Figure 2 Percentages of students performing below
NAEP Basic: 2013 and 2019*

At the state and district levels, 35 out of 51 states and 10 out of 21 TUDA districts showed a significant increase in the percentage of students performing below
*NAEP Basic* from 2013 to 2019.^{4}

NAEP uses a variety of items to measure what students know and can do in various grades and subjects. This section introduces a few NAEP items for grade 8 mathematics and reading and shows the percentages of students receiving full credit by NAEP achievement level.

*Figure 3 Example item #1 from grade 8 mathematics*

NAEP mathematics assessments have five content areas: number properties and operations; measurement; geometry; data analysis, statistics, and probability; and algebra. Mathematics items are classified by easy, medium, and hard difficulty levels, and by low, moderate, and high complexity.

The NAEP reading assessments have two types of texts: literary and informational. Reading items are classified by easy, medium, and hard difficulty levels, and by locate/recall, integrate/interpret, and critique/evaluate as cognitive targets.

In each NAEP assessment, students work on two cognitive blocks. They have 30 minutes to complete each block. Students with accommodations for extended time may have 90 minutes to complete one block.

The first item is an example from geometry (figure 3). It requires students to understand the term “perpendicular.” The response analysis showed that half (50 percent) of students performing below
*NAEP Basic* and 57 percent of those at
*NAEP Basic* answered this item correctly. In comparison, higher percentages of students at the
*NAEP Proficient* and
*NAEP Advanced* levels (75 percent and 92 percent, respectively) provided correct answers.

The second item is from measurement (figure 4). It requires students to write a short response to receive credit and to use a unit conversion to calculate the total amount of milk Tyler drank during a week. The graph shows that only 9 percent of students performing below
*NAEP Basic* provided the correct answer and showed correct work. The percentage gap between below
*NAEP Basic* and
*NAEP Basic* for a full credit answer was relatively large (9 percent vs. 41 percent).

*Figure 4 Example item #2 from grade 8 mathematics*

The third item is from the NAEP reading assessment, which requires students to read a given passage (figure 5). The text length is approximately 800 words, and the passage describes how a baby shark brought to the Monterey Bay Aquarium survived living there.

*Figure 5 Example item #3 from grade 8 reading*

As this figure shows, only 46 percent of students performing below
*NAEP Basic* answered this item correctly, while 76 percent of students performing at
*NAEP Basic* answered correctly.

The fourth item is based on a passage that recounts the feelings of a young boy, Miguel, during his first family trip to the Dominican Republic (figure 6).^{5}

*Figure 6 Example item #4 from grade 8 reading*

The item requires students to recognize the best explanation of a character’s importance to the rest of the story. About 60 percent of students performing below
*NAEP Basic* answered correctly, compared to 86 percent of students performing at
*NAEP Basic*.

These examples illustrate that students performing below
*NAEP Basic* struggle to answer items that a majority of grade 8 students can answer correctly.

As indicated in this blog post, a large percentage of U.S. students do not meet the basic academic expectations for mathematics and reading determined by policymakers. This is not specific to one year or grade—the increase in the percentages of students performing below
*NAEP Basic* indicates a disturbing trend that requires the attention of educators nationwide. In contrast to the wide score range of students performing below
*NAEP Basic*, there are a relatively small number of NAEP assessment items currently available that measure what students at different levels within this category can do (as opposed to what they cannot do). Indeed, a few of the item examples shown in this post suggest that students performing below
*NAEP Basic* struggle to answer items that students who perform at the
*NAEP Basic* level find relatively easy. To more accurately understand the performance of those students who are struggling, we need more accessible assessment items that cover the score range of below
*NAEP Basic* performance. We also need to know more about below
*NAEP Basic* performance to provide more targeted support to those students. The
next blog post will describe some ongoing efforts that NCES has been working on in this vein.

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