The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (a.k.a. “the Nation’s Report Card”) is out this week, and the news “isn’t great.” For the first time in 25 years, fourth and eighth grade math scores have fallen and reading scores remained flat.
Specifically, 39 percent of fourth graders and 32 percent of eighth graders scored proficient or better in math, while only 35 percent of U.S. fourth graders and 33 percent of eighth graders scored at “proficient” or better in reading.
Seven years into an administration that has made unprecedented inroads into state and local educational policymaking decisions, it could be we’re starting to see the effects.
The NAEP is a good test. The National Center for Educational Statistics, which administers the program, takes samples from all 50 states and 20 major metros. Tests are quick — they only run about an hour. And students are anonymous. The idea is to get the most accurate picture possible of what students are or are not learning, with a special focus on the black-white achievement gap.
Gerard Robinson of the American Enterprise Institute notes the racial subgroup scores aren’t very good, either. “Math and reading scores for white and black fourth- and eighth-graders remained the same or dropped since 2013,” he writes. Meantime, “reading scores rose for Hispanic fourth graders but dropped in eighth grade; and eighth grade math and reading scores for Asian students, who are the top performers in the nation, dropped.”
Departing Education Secretary Arne Duncan this week surmised that disappointing results likely have something to do with states’ difficult transition into the Common Core State Standards.
“Big change never happens overnight,” Duncan said. “I’m confident that over the next decade, if we stay committed to this change, we will see historic improvements.”
Duncan’s critics on the left are having none of that. They believe the NAEP scores vindicate their long-held view that testing and accountability are ruining education.
“The news isn’t good for those who think standardized test scores tell us something significant about student achievement,” writes the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss, who has rarely encountered a teachers’ union talking point she hasn’t parroted.
She even takes a swipe at the NAEP tests, which are nothing like the “high-stakes tests” left-liberal critics loathe. “It is seen by many as a high-quality test,” she writes, “though it has many critics, too, some of whom say that the NAEP definition of’ ‘proficiency’ is unnaturally high, and that the test cannot measure many of the qualities students must develop to be successful.”
Oh, please. NAEP is very good at testing knowledge. If you want to understand the depth of civic ignorance in our republic, for example, peruse the past 15 years of results from the NAEP civics and U.S. history tests.
In any event, the teachers union critics are happy to point out how Duncan just two years ago was crediting the Common Core for boosting NAEP scores in a handful of states. Now he’s saying, whoops, maybe not.
“Considering that the rationale for the Common Core State Standards initiative was low NAEP proficiency rates, it would appear that the solution of tough standards and tough tests is not the great path forward after all,” writes Carol Burris, who along with Diane Ravitch founded the pro-teachers union Network for Public Education.
It cannot be that simple — or so ideologically pat. As the Wall Street Journal editorializes:
Perhaps what’s most depressing about the latest results is that progress has ceased even in education reform leaders like Tennessee, Indiana and Florida that have loosened teacher tenure protections and expanded school choice. Yet this may be evidence that a falling tide can strand all boats.
One of the few exceptions this year was Chicago where eighth-grade proficiency in math increased to 25% from 20%. Over the last two years Chicago has closed its achievement gap with other large public city school districts. Mayor Rahm Emanuel deserves credit for expanding charter schools as well as imposing a longer school day and more rigorous teacher evaluations.
Cleveland’s school district has also made modest strides. In 2012 Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed a law allowing the district to base teacher layoffs on performance rather than seniority. The law also rewarded highly rated teachers with better pay.
Mr. Duncan, who is leaving in December, last week gave unions a parting gift by proposing to cap standardized testing at 2% of classroom time. Yet it’s possible that the anti-testing fever that has swept the nation in the last two years may have contributed to the lousy NAEP results. (Emphasis added.)
Michael Petrilli at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute suggests the stagnant economy also may be playing a role in stagnating scores:
What might be going on? It could certainly be something happening inside our schools. Maybe the transition to the Common Core is causing disruption and growing pains (or worse), and those are reflected in these data. Maybe the political debate over standards, testing, and teacher evaluations has caused uncertainty in the classroom or discouraged kids from trying as hard. Maybe Arne Duncan’s waivers relieved the pressure on schools to boost achievement, and they consequently took their foot off the gas. Some states will explain that they altered the portions of English language learners and students with special needs who were excused from NAEP testing. All plausible.
But it’s also plausible that these trends reflect something going on outside of schools—namely, the economic condition of our country and our communities. As I argued the other day, the Great Recession and its aftermath could have acted as a stiff headwind. As schools face more challenging demographics—partly because of the decades-long surge in immigration, but also because of the economic dislocation facing many students and their families—they have to work harder just to stand still.
All possible! But it’s worth digging a little more deeply into the role Common Core may be playing in what students are learning and how. For the moment, however, Peggy Carr of the National Center for Education Statistics has offers a sound word of caution: “One downturn does not a trend make.” Let’s see what the scores look like in 2017.