“Today’s students are digital natives,” states the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a.k.a. the National Report Card. To respond to the increasingly digital learning environment, NAEP has transitioned to digitally based assessment to cover reading, math, science, civics, geography, and U.S. history. Thanks to the growing technology transformation in education, students are taking NAEP administered on tablets using dynamic and innovative technologies. The message of this picture is that schools, particularly those lacking resources, need to consider elevating the relevance of technology and enriching students’ learning experiences.

Engaging students in digital learning opportunities is a key component in offering students a personalized learning experience that can better help them be prepared for success in the twenty-first century. The recent released NAEP data offer many opportunities for school leaders to learn which practices can help students raise their academic achievement levels in this digital era. As part of the NAEP assessment, NAEP survey questionnaires collect contextual information about school factors regarding students’ opportunities to learn.

The Center for Public Education (CPE), a research branch of the National School Boards Association, examined the relationship between student achievement and some technology-related school factors. We found that in both 2017 and 2019, students in public schools with poor technology resources (i.e. unavailable wireless Internet connection, shortage of computer software for English language arts, and lack of teacher training in effectively using digital tools) performed significantly lower in reading and math, compared with their peers in better digitally equipped schools.

Here are three takeaways for school leaders:

First, lack of computer software for English/language arts affects students’ achievement in both reading and math. NAEP data show that students (both fourth and eighth graders) who were reported that their schools were not at all affected by lack of computer software for English/language arts performed much better in English and math than students whose schools were affected. Figure 1 shows that the more schools were affected by the lack of digital resources for English language arts, the poorer their students performed in reading leading to fewer students at or above proficient in reading. This trend has persisted since 2017.

Figure 1.

A chart showing 4th grade reading, percentage of students who were at or above proficient by response to the question school affected by lack of computer software for english/language arts

Data source: https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/data/

Second, access to Wi-Fi everywhere in the school has a role in student achievement. As shown in Figure 2, eighth graders from schools with wireless Internet connection everywhere performed higher in reading than their peers from schools that did not have or only had wireless Internet connection in some areas. Data also show that in schools with wireless Internet connection everywhere, more students (35% in 2017 and 33% in 2019) were at or above proficient in reading.

Figure 2.

A chart showing 8th grade reading, percentage of students who were at or above proficient by school-reported availability of wireless internet.

Data source: https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/data/

While Wi-Fi available everywhere in school may not lead to every student being engaged in learning, the easy access to the Internet creates abundant opportunities for students to acquire new knowledge and develop digital skills. In schools that received Title I funding, eighth-grade students who used digital devices to access reading-related websites frequently (i.e. 1-2 times/week) were more likely to reach the reading proficiency level than students who did so less frequently (i.e. 1-2 times/month). Clearly, technology offers students more opportunities to learn, and this can boost student academic performance.

Finally, NAEP data suggests that students benefit from teachers who are trained how to use digital tools in their instruction. In public schools that offer digital device training to all teachers, both fourth and eighth graders performed significantly higher in reading and math - more students were at or above proficient. When teachers become skillful users of technology, their students may thrive.

Table 1 shows that for schools that offer digital training to all teachers and provide their students with opportunities to use computer/digital device to access reading-related website once or twice a month,

  • both fourth and eighth graders scored significantly higher than their peers from schools without such training to teachers;
  • 41 percent of fourth-grade students were at or above proficient in reading, 6 percentage points higher than the average of national public schools;
  • 35 percent of eighth-grade students were at or above proficient in reading, 1 percentage point higher than the average of national public schools.

Table 1. Score and percentage of students (whose teacher reported using computer/digital device to access reading related websites once or twice a month) at or above reading proficiency level, by teachers’ response to the question whether schools offer computer/digital device training for teachers: 2017 and 2019

Table showing score and percentage of students at or above reading proficiency level

Data source: https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/data/

In summary, the 2019 NAEP data show that curriculum-related computer software, access to adequate Internet connection, and digital training for teachers are all relevant to student achievement. Elevating the level of technology in school should involve both hardware (e.g., devices and Internet) and software (e.g. training of effective use of digital resources for teachers). Since technology is becoming such an important part of twenty-first century jobs and students are increasingly being assessed on digital devices, it is critical for schools to prepare students with skills beyond what they can learn with just paper and pencil.

CPE will publish two more blogs as part of the series What We See in 2019 NAEP.


Jinghong Cai, Ph.D., Senior Research Analyst of the Center for Public Education.

Chip Slaven, Chief Advocacy Officer of NSBA, who has extensive experience working on digital and personalized learning issues including originating Digital Learning Day, co-managing a successful campaign to close the digital divide for traditionally underserved students by advocating for expansion of the Schools and Libraries Program (E-Rate), and authoring the Each Child Learns Act, which is model legislation for states on personalized and digital learning.

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