The biennial NAEP scores were released this morning, and the trend was more of the same: math scores edged up a little to all-time highs in both the fourth and eighth grades, while reading scores stayed flat in the fourth grade and increased slightly in the eighth grade. Some initial thoughts:
- The period of 2009 to 2011 was obviously an economically calamitous time, so it’s good to see that student achievement in reading and math appears not to have suffered. This is probably because short-term changes in family poverty status have much less of an impact on student learning than the suite of learning environment deficits and social pathologies associated with long-term poverty. In other words, if a teacher loses her job and her family income drops, she’s still the same parent she was before. Her life circumstances are undeniably more challenging, but poverty doesn’t remove her vocabulary or ability to help her children learn.
- Long-term NAEP trends in mathematics, particularly in elementary school, put the lie to any assertion that significant improvements to the national education system are impossible. Here are fourth grade math achievement levels over the last twenty years:
- In 1990, 50 percent of fourth graders failed to score at the “Basic” level of proficiency in math. They were innumerate. Today, that number is 18 percent. The percent of students meeting the much higher “Proficient” standard has more than tripled, from 14 to 47 percent. Unfortunately, those gains seem to fade away in high school, where there has been very little progress over time. But that’s an argument for doing more to improve high schools, which have been, perhaps not coincidentally, largely removed from standards-and-accountability regimes.
- States were far more likely to get better than get worse. Thirteen states improved their eighth-grade math scores; one declined. Ten states improved their eight-grade reading scores; none declined. This is what you would expect from a federal system of government where most of the educational money and decision-making power remains in the states. It suggests that state leaders can take steps to improve education, but many are not.
- Achievement gaps by and large stayed the same. There was some narrowing of the gap between student who are eligible for reduced-price lunches and those who are not. But unlike race / ethnicity, poverty is a variable factor. Substantially more students were reduced-price lunch-eligible in 2011 than in 2009, because the economy tanked. Presumably, students at the margin between the middle and lower economic classes (like the children of the hypothetical teacher described above) are more academically adept, in aggregate, than students at the lowest reaches of poverty. So this may simply be a matter of shifting students between measured populations. Overall, whatever we’ve done to move achievement forward has been broadly applied across groups, not concentrated on one at the expense of others, which should give comfort to people like Rick Hess who worry that we’re devoting too much time and attention to helping the most disadvantaged children learn.
- An interesting question is what happens to NAEP in the era of Common Core standards? If most states are using the same standards and tests, why have a separate national regime? But there’s still a lot of ambiguity about how, exactly, states will implement the new tests–they might pick different cut scores for accountability purposes, for example. NAEP also provides an invaluable long-term perspective on national education trends, and will serve as a backstop to the Common Core. It won’t, and shouldn’t, go away any time soon.
- These scores will inevitably be shot through the prism of ESEA reauthorization and the perpetual argument about No Child Left Behind. Okay. First, these scores certainly contradict the more apocalyptic language out there, that standards and tests have ruined American public education, driven the best teachers out of the classroom, etc., etc. There’s simply no evidence here to support that. At the same time, it’s abundantly clear that NCLB did not create an inflection point of accelerating improvement. That said, we should never take improvement for granted. Helping more students learn isn’t like rolling a ball along a flat surface, where the key is to get momentum going that then mostly sustains itself. It’s a lot more like climbing a mountain, where every increase in elevation is hard-won and the task gets more arduous the higher you go. Maintaining the pre-NCLB trajectory of improvement is, itself, an achievement. But it is an achievement that falls far short of the law’s aspirations. So what’s next? There are a lot of people in Congress right now who appear ready and willing to blithely dismantle a set of education policies that have resulted in incremental but nonetheless significant improvement in student achievement over the past 20 years and replace them with…nothing, really. My concern is that once you stop trying to move up, there’s nowhere to go but down.