National Assessment Governing Board Updates NAEP Achievement Levels

The National Assessment Governing Board unanimously adopted a revised policy that outlines how achievement levels are developed, reviewed, and updated for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The revisions improve the development and reporting of the NAEP achievement levels for the nation, states, and 27 urban school districts that participate in NAEP.

The National Assessment Governing Board was created by Congress in 1988 as an independent, nonpartisan board to set policy for NAEP, known as The Nation’s Report Card. The Governing Board’s duties include determining what subjects are assessed when and developing student achievement levels for NAEP. Achievement levels represent what students should know and be able to do, essentially answering the question: How good is good enough on NAEP?

The previous policy provided guidance on setting achievement levels for new assessments. The Board’s updated policy provides additional guidance around reviewing and updating achievement levels for existing assessments over time.

The revised policy calls for an interpretive guide to accompany the release of NAEP results, which will explain how the achievement levels should (and should not) be used. The policy also requires a periodic review of achievement level descriptions and cut scores and clarifies how multiple stakeholders, including educators, parents, and researchers, participate in that review.

“We are affirming our commitment to give more information about the achievement levels and to review them according to the most respected professional standards,” said Ken Wagner, a member of the Board’s Committee on Standards, Design and Methodology and Commissioner for Elementary and Secondary Education for the Rhode Island Department of Education. “We want NAEP results to be reported accurately and responsibly. We made these changes as a way to support this goal.”

Important changes also were made to the terminology used to report NAEP achievement levels: NAEP Basic, NAEP Proficient, and NAEP Advanced. Previously, the results were reported simply as Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. The definitions of the three NAEP achievement levels are:

  • NAEP Basic - This level denotes partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for performance at the NAEP Proficient level.
  •  NAEP Proficient - This level represents solid academic performance for each NAEP assessment. Students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.
  • NAEP Advanced - This level signifies superior performance beyond NAEP Proficient.

“The changes emphasize that the achievement levels refer to NAEP. We recognize that the term proficient is used in many other contexts to mean several different things. These changes further support the goal of clarity and accuracy in reporting NAEP results,” said Andrew Ho, Chair of the Board’s Committee on Standards, Design and Methodology.

The Governing Board, led by its Committee on Standards, Design and Methodology, has spent two years deliberating the update to the 1995 Board policy on Developing Student Performance Levels for NAEP. The policy revisions deliver on the Governing Board’s response to several recommendations from the Congressionally-mandated evaluation of the NAEP achievement levels completed in November 2016. 

In September, a period of public comment and review elicited 73 comments. The Board reviewed and considered all comments in finalizing the policy language and reaffirmed its commitment to equity and high standards for all students.

“The most recent evaluation of the NAEP achievement levels by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine solidified the achievement levels’ value as a meaningful and important part of NAEP reporting,” said Ho. “The Board is committed to continually improving the development and communication of the NAEP achievement levels. This policy revision is just one step, and several other activities are underway.”

Download the new policy on Developing Student Achievement Levels for the National Assessment of Educational Progress here.


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