Data First

Brought to you by The Center for Public Education

Home > Data Center > How do students in your state compare nationally?

National Data

There are now eight different National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests administered to the nation’s students at grades 4, 8, and 12. And the NAEP website now provides an interactive program where one can easily click on their state and compare test scores with national figures. Please note that this feature only provides data for mathematics, reading, writing, and science for grades 4 and 8.

On NAEP’s state comparison interface, you can dig further into the data to compare achievement by demographics from as far back as 1992 to the present day.

Sample inquiries from the website include:

1. How does the average reading score for male students in a particular state compare to the average reading score for male students in other states in 2005?

2. How does the change (from 2002 to the focal year) in reading scores for male students in a particular state compare to the change in reading scores for male students in other states?

The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems provides additional state by state information on student performance on AP tests, starting at 1997 through 2007.

Data Source

NAEP, National Center for Education Statistics (2013).


Known as “the nation’s report card,” NAEP offers comparable state-by-state performance data. NAEP is overseen by the federal government and assesses student performance in reading, math, science, history, and writing.

NAEP is based on the performance of a representative sample of students, with about 3,000 students per jurisdiction. While the program provides extensive data on the performance of the states and various student populations, it does not provide information on how individual schools or students are doing.

How to Use the Data

NAEP is the only source of comparable state-by-state performance data. It allows a state to compare its performance to that of other states and the nation. The NAEP program also provides extensive data on long-term achievement trends and the performance of various student populations.

How the details were measured

NAEP results are reported in two ways:

  1. Average scores are reported on a scale, typically from 0-500.
  2. Achievement levels (below basic, basic, proficient, and advanced) are assigned to ranges on the scale to describe various levels of performance.

NAEP data are available at the national and state level and for a dozen districts. The data are also broken down by race, income, gender, English language learners, and student disability.

Limitations of the data

NAEP data is only available on a state-by-state basis in fourth and eighth grade. There is twelfth grade data, but it is only available at the national level. Moreover, researchers have long questioned the validity of the twelfth grade NAEP data, arguing that high school seniors have little incentive to perform well on the exam. For this reason and others, the U.S. Department of Education has yet to conduct a twelfth grade state-by-state NAEP assessment.

Key Questions to Ask

How does the performance of student groups compare?

NAEP provides achievement data by student race/ethnicity, family income, disability, and English language proficiency. These indicators shed light on achievement gaps between student groups in your state. The Nation’s Report Card is an easy-to-use Web site for accessing this data.

Is NAEP achievement improving? 

It’s also important to understand if student performance is improving or declining. The “main” NAEP provides trend data beginning in the early 1990s. The long-term trend NAEP is a separate test that has been tracking student achievement since 1971. Both the Main NAEP and NAEP Long-Term Trends provide achievement data broken down by student group.

Why does student performance on NAEP differ from state tests?

Under federal law, each state sets its own proficiency level on state exams. While some states grade their students against proficiency standards that are as high as NAEP, others use standards lower than NAEP. The Center for Public Education provides more information on comparing state and NAEP assessments in two of its guides, Score wars and The proficiency debate.

Learn More

Congress established NAEP in 1969, and while the exam is voluntary, all states that receive Title I funds must participate in the reading and mathematics assessments in fourth and eighth grade. NAEP administers the reading and mathematics exams every other year, while other subject-area exams such as U.S. History typically occur every four years. More information on the NAEP program and schedule of exams can be found in The Nation’s Report Card, Questions and Answers.

Although NAEP aims to provide data at the state and national level, some districts have also participated in the assessment. The districts include Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, and San Diego. The 2009 urban district results have been released in math and in reading.

NAEP measures student performance against an academic framework. The framework is a broad outline of what students should know and be able to do and was developed by the U.S. Department of Education with the help of educators, policymakers, and the general public.

In the mathematics framework, for example, fourth graders at the proficient level should be able to use whole numbers, have a conceptual understanding of fractions and decimals, and be able to use four-function calculators. Results on the exams are reported by scale scores or by the achievement levels based on these frameworks. Researchers typically use the scale scores because they offer more precise results, while policymakers and the public usually report scores according to the achievement levels. More information on the test development and frameworks can be found on the National Assessment Governing Board Web site.

The NAEP program—and its academic frameworks—has not been without its critics. Some states have argued that the exam does not reflect their local curricula, and some experts have criticized the design of the academic frameworks. Most notably, a 1998 report by the National Academy of Science found that the process for setting NAEP achievement levels was flawed and argued that the performance benchmarks were set too high. While the Department of Education maintains that the assessment program is sound, it has contracted with the Buros Center for Testing for an external evaluation. More information on the debate over NAEP and the NAEP frameworks can be found on the Center for Public Education Web site. Information about the Buros Center evaluation can be found on the here.

Additional Resources

Demonstrating success:

Accountability Plan Spurs Achievement Gains for Indiana District—Making accountability a matter of policy helped this school district narrow the acheivement gap and raise students’ achievement scores overall.

Long-term commitment key to Kansas City (Kan.) schools’ success—Faced with a high dropout rate and low student performance, this Kansas City (Kan.) district put “first things first” to increase community involvement and make student achievement gains.