National Assessment of Educational Progress Shows No Progress

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April 27, 2016, National Public Radio, “nprEd”

School reform is a reliable presidential apple of discord. NPR reports that the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results will give our candidates much to debate: “Most High School Seniors Aren’t College or Career Ready, Says ‘Nation’s Report Card’

This test measures how well the nation’s students do in math and reading. Unlike the SAT, there is no test prep industry for the NAEP because there are no high-stakes consequences to the students taking the exam. This test is the truth-teller that experts at either end of the education reform spectrum manage to accept:

Unlike state tests, which have been shifting year by year with the adoption of the Common Core, NAEP scores are comparable across decades—back to 2005 for math and all the way back to 1993 for reading. […] “In our era of incredibly volatile state and local testing practices, it is our North Star,” says Andrew Ho, a measurement expert at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who sits on NAEP’s bipartisan governing board.

NPQ has reported on past NAEP results here and here. Query NAEP online, and the scholarly commentary abounds. Matt Chingos at the Urban Institute offers a highly regarded analysis of how NAEP scores for similar students vary among states. The number of comments to this NPR story alone: 1,047 and counting. Everyone has an opinion.

The test results? Only 37 percent of the 12th graders made the grade in reading and 25 percent in math. Drill down, and we find that only seven percent of African-American students scored proficient or better in math, and 17 percent scored well in reading. Hispanic 12th-graders performed better, with 12 percent passing in math and 25 percent passing in reading.

Despite decades of the potpourri of education reforms, top-achieving students’ scores are improving, and the struggling students’ scores are declining. Overall, there was a drop in the percentage of students in private and public schools prepared for college-level work in reading and math. (Initiatives almost always targeted to failing or “at-risk” students—high achievers are either ignored or left unscathed by the ravages of attempted reforms.)

What is the problem? Teacher evaluation? Waivers? Common Core? Implementation? The economy?

Whatever the causes may be, high school dropouts make up 80 percent of the U.S. prison population. Inequality, the poor performance of low-income and minority students, is a concern accepted across the ideological spectrum. However, by adhering to the “no excuses” doctrine, test scores become the focus rather than the very inequality of resources and social conditions that cause the poor outcomes. Poverty itself gets ignored.

“Cory Booker, Chris Christie, and Mark Zuckerberg had a plan to reform Newark’s schools. They got an education.” That’s the subtitle of a New Yorker article titled “Schooled”:

“We know what works,” Booker and other reformers often said. They blamed vested interests for using poverty as an excuse for failure, and dismissed competing approaches as incrementalism. Education needed “transformational change.” Mark Zuckerberg, the twenty-six-year-old head of Facebook, agreed, and he pledged a hundred million dollars to Booker and Christie’s cause.

There was no question that the Newark school district needed reform. For generations, it had been a source of patronage jobs and sweetheart deals for the connected and the lucky. As Ross Danis, of the nonprofit Newark Trust for Education, put it, in 2010, “The Newark schools are like a candy store that’s a front for a gambling operation. When a threat materializes, everyone takes his position and sells candy. When it recedes, they go back to gambling.”

Bill Gates’s efforts at reform did not fare much better.

According to another NPR report, non-credited remedial courses once in college are costing ill-prepared students and their families dearly. “Overall, across all income groups at all types of colleges, students are borrowing an extra $380 million a year just to take high-school level courses in the first year of college. […] Students are 75 percent less likely to complete college if they have to take a remedial course,” says Mary Nguyen Barry, the report’s other co-author. “It’s making college a poor value proposition for many families because there’s such a high dropout rate.”

The high school diploma (and, by some lights, the bachelor’s degree that follows) consequently has lost its significance as a determinant of academic achievement, perhaps because graduation rates are at their highest (82 percent) in the face of these disappointing test results and the need for remedial education. This issue of unpreparedness cuts across social classes. Education Reform Now reports, “Of state and federal higher education data, 45 percent of students who place into remedial courses come from middle- and high-income families.”

Ho emphasizes, “Graduation is not just reading and math…high school diplomas also include things like social studies, science, the arts, PE and showing up.” In other words, as the NPR report explains, “the diploma potentially captures achievements over time, rather than the ability to do well on a short, mostly multiple-choice test taken on a single day.”—James Schaffer