Academic Achievement

The primary metric we use to measure academic performance is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a series of tests in various subjects given since the 1970s to a representative sample of students in fourth and eighth grade. It is a highly regarded assessment, and because it is considered “low stakes” (that is, teacher or school evaluations are not tied to it) there is little concern that there is “teaching to the test” or cheating.

Looking at the national picture, two clear findings emerge. First, in absolute terms, scores for African-American students are low. On the 2015 NAEP assessment, only 18% of African-American fourth graders were proficient in reading and only 19% were proficient in math. For African-American eighth graders, 16% were proficient in reading and only 13% in math. This is in comparison with a national average for all students of 36% proficiency in fourth-grade reading, 40% in fourth-grade math, 34% in eighth-grade reading, and 33% in eighth-grade math. On history, civics, and geography exams given to eighth graders in 2014, 6% of African-American students were proficient in history, 9% in civics, and 7% in geography (compared with national averages for all students of 18%, 24%, and 27%, respectively).

At the same time, we should not discount the progress that has been made in these subject areas. In terms of the percentage of students identified as proficient, in all four math and reading tests, African-American students have made statistically significant advances. In 1990 (or 1992 depending on the test), only 8% of African-American fourth graders were proficient in reading and 1% were proficient in math. Only 9% of African-American eighth graders were proficient in reading and only 5% were proficient in math. The gains in social studies were not as drastic, but still represent growth over the past 20 years. These represent significant gains that should be applauded.

Percentages Proficient, NAEP Exams, National Averages by Grade and Subject

  1990/1992 2015 Difference
  Reading Math Reading Math Reading Math
African-American Students Fourth Grade 8% 1% 18% 19% 10% 18%
African-American Students Eighth Grade 9% 5% 16% 13% 7% 8%
All Students Fourth Grade 29% 13% 36% 40% 7% 27%
All Students Eighth Grade 29% 15% 34% 33% 5% 18%
  1994 2014
African-American Students Eighth Grade History 3% 6%
African-American Students Eighth Grade Civics 7% 9%
African-American Students Eighth Grade Geography 5% 7%