The Nation’s Report Card: What it is, what it isn’t, and how it can be useful for NH

The assessment results give us a glimpse into how students in New Hampshire and across the country are doing, but aren't the whole story.

In April, New Hampshire was recognized as one of the top performing states in math and reading according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the Nation’s Report Card. This is in keeping with New Hampshire’s track record on the NAEP; however, the full picture is more nuanced. While New Hampshire’s students lead the nation in many ways, the NAEP results also show persisting achievement gaps and other challenges that many districts are working to address. In order for us to more fully understand what the NAEP results indicate (and what they do not), it is necessary to note the intention, purpose, and use of this single measurement, and to place the NAEP in context with our broader state and federal accountability systems.

What is the NAEP?

The NAEP is given to students across the country in various subjects. The assessment is created, given, and managed by the National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the U.S. Department of Education. The state NAEP was first offered in 1990 and is the longest-running national assessment.

The NAEP has the unique ability to provide a common measurement of academic progress between students in different states and across time. Since the assessment is kept constant across time, results can be used to show longitudinal trends. With the NAEP, we can evaluate how today’s 4th-grade students, nationwide or in any given state, perform relative to their historical peers on questions of comparable rigor and difficulty. This enables us to identify trends.

The NAEP tests on math, reading, geography, arts, civics, U.S. History, and several other subjects. But it’s not a perfect measurement. Not every student takes the NAEP every year–only a subsample of students take the exam, and the results are weighted to represent statewide student performance. The NAEP thus cannot be used to assess the performance of individual districts–the results are provided only at the state level (and in some cases the metropolitan region).

Results do not indicate grade level performance. They are not intended to be a singular measure of accountability or replace any statewide assessments. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the reported levels of mastery indicate mastery of knowledge and skills in a specific content area and that “proficient is not synonymous with grade-level performance.”

The statewide assessment and other tools should be used to measure whether a student is reading or performing math, for example, at grade level. Each state sets their own grade level expectations, which may not align to what the NAEP is testing on in a given grade.

The main purpose of the NAEP is to provide longitudinal data on student performance across the states and can be another tool to increase awareness of how our children are learning and thriving in school.

So claims that “43% of New Hampshire’s fourth graders are reading at grade level,” or similar claims based on NAEP scores need to be scrutinized closely and presented in context. While results highlight trends among subsets of students–for example, students of diverse backgrounds or students from low-income families, they cannot be used to make inferences about individual districts, schools, or students.


In 2017, New Hampshire remained one of the highest achieving states in the nation for fourth and eighth-grade math and reading.

Nationally, 40% of fourth graders scored at or above proficient in math compared to 43% of New Hampshire fourth graders. Thirty-four percent of eighth graders nationally scored at or above proficient in math, while 45% of New Hampshire students scored at or above proficient.

In reading, 37% of fourth-grade students nationally scored at or above proficient, compared to 43% of New Hampshire fourth graders did. 36% percent of eighth graders nationally scored at or above proficient, while 45% of New Hampshire’s eighth graders did, as shown in the charts below.

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Scores among 4th graders are trending slightly down (with a noticeable drop in scores among female students); and scores among 8th graders had a slight increase (with the exception of students with disabilities, where scores are trending slightly down).

Overall math scores are up among both 4th and 8th graders from where they were in 2003, but whereas 8th-grade scores are on a slightly upward trajectory, 4th-grade scores are declining from a peak in 2013.

Test administrators warned against reading heavily into the NAEP scores, as 2017 was the first year they were administered via a computer. Students tend to do worse on digitally-administered tests than on those given with pencil and paper, according to Chalkbeat.

Where do we go from here?

Across the country, the NAEP serves as a springboard for conversations around data, its usefulness, and long-term trends in student progress and growth. In New Hampshire, the results show stagnant or declining scores for reading and math among 4th and 8th graders. But using it as a single reason for wholesale educational reforms is a mistake, according to education expert Tom Loveless.

Dr. Scott Marion, Executive Director of the Center for Assessment and a national leader in educational assessment, agrees that measuring student progress and growth should go beyond a single assessment like the NAEP:

[T]o move toward more meaningful and deeper learning opportunities, students should be expected to engage in opportunities such as senior exhibitions, pursue internships or other extended learning opportunities, and/or complete rich performance tasks characteristic of New Hampshire’s Performance Assessment of Competency Education initiative and Wyoming’s former Body of Evidence System. Of course, there is nothing stopping states and districts from pursuing such approaches now, but if such activities are not included in the ways in which high schools are held accountable, it is easy for such ambitious efforts to fall by the wayside.

The trends can be combined with other assessments, like the NH Statewide Assessment System, to paint a broader picture of student learning.

Through NAEP we get a glimpse at how NH students are doing in reading and mathematics compared to other students in other states. This information, coupled with NH’s own home-grown assessment, PACE, the NH Statewide Assessment System, and other key education metrics can be powerful. The work, however, is ensuring that robust data are available for public consumption and presented in context. The NH Alliance for College and Career Readiness will be tackling this issue with its diverse membership of grassroots and grasstops leaders across the K-12, higher education, and business and industry sectors.

View the Graphs

NOTE: In graphs that break out students by disability status, SWD indicates “students with disabilities” and does not include students with a 504 plan.