In a recent study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP or also known asthe Nation’s Report Card), high school seniors made gains in mathematics in 2009, marking greater performance since 2005.These results reflected that on average, math scores in 2009 were three points higher than in 2005. Scores were also higher for all racial and ethnic groups. Oddly enough, the NAEP report card also displayed a drop in reading scores— four points since 1992.

Dismissing the reading scores all-together, (which frankly is hard to do) the improvements in math scores appear promising, especially in light of news that graduation rates are increasing. However, there’s something inherently unsettling about reading these figures. They all sound hopeful, until you put them in their proper perspective. For example, let’s look at the new math proficiency scores. NAEP divides their report card into three levels: Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. Of the 49,000 students tested in math, 26% were at or above Proficient while 64% were at or above Basic , both of which are improvements since the last test in 2005. However, if we look closer at the definition of what “Basic” level means to the NAEP, which is a “partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade,” the improvements don’t hold as much weight. If 64% were at or above “Basic” level that means a majority of students aren’t as proficient as they should be.

I may be stating the obvious here, but while there were some modest gains made in mathematics, is this really an encouraging sign of achievement for 12th graders nationwide? In the end, the scores are not drastically better than they once were in 1992 and according to Valerie Strauss’ blog from the Washington Post, and no progress was made in closing the achievement gaps that separate white students from their black and Latino counterparts. Additionally, in her own respective Education Week blog, Diane Ravitch points out that NAEP has known (for quite some time now) that high school seniors don’t aim to do well on these tests. Why should they? Scores don’t count for final grades or college admission, and nobody will ever know if they performed poorly on them. Why be motivated to do your best.

This then begs the question: What’s the true purpose of the exam– to see how well prepared 12th graders are for college and the workforce? Doesn’t appear so. To simply gage their mastery of mathematics? Unclear. To further add to the debate of the test’s reliability, NAEP does not administer it annually and only 11 states participated this year (as its voluntary). Although NAEP’s work is admirable, we’re not sure what these samplings truly show us.

Nevertheless, there may be steps we can take in order refine the purpose and create distinct meaning to the NAEP 12th grade math scores. If resources are going to be devoted to such an assessment, maybe more dollars should be allocated to not only test every 12th grader nationwide but to also administer the test more frequently (annually or at least every other year). Those two changes alone could improve the reliability of the exam; something deemed valuable by the Obama administration as it renewed an interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (often referred to as STEM) education and STEM careers for America’s public school students.