Guest commentary: NAEP should be a wake-up call for ed reformers, policymakers

Jonathan Butcher

A recent comparison of K-12 children around the U.S. brought bad news for education reformers—an amorphous group of policymakers and advocates who are akin to locksmiths searching for the right combination of resources and policy ideas to unlock student potential. The news was bad for students, too, but since the scores do not affect a student’s report card, the results mattered more to the aforementioned locksmiths today.

The results will matter for students tomorrow.

As readers of this blog will know, the Nation’s Report Card, also known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), is a set of math and reading tests given to a sample of fourth- and eighth-graders around the country every two years. The U.S. Department of Education also administers NAEP tests in other subjects and specific cities.

The more frequent math and reading results allow education locksmiths to gauge whether any number of inputs in the nation’s schools—from spending increases to new laws—are having their desired effects. With both more money and federal law firmly in place, observers were frustrated that national averages for 2019 reading and math scores fell from 2017 (with the 1-point improvement in fourth-grade math a small exception).

Rigorous research is required to appropriately link policies and school budgets to NAEP outcomes, but Florida’s aggressive upgrade to its K-12 education design in the early 2000s tracked closely with improved NAEP scores among minority students. The additional parent options in education, along with a focus on reading among third-graders and more attention to the use of Advanced Placement testing has been the subject of policy discussion around the country since.

This year, reformers pointed to similar reading-related policies in Mississippi to explain the state’s improvement in fourth-grade scores, while calling for “urgent action” elsewhere. The Council of Chief State School Officers even said the “urgency of improving outcomes for all students” was enough to plan … a meeting. This “urgent action” is why the results will matter for students tomorrow: That is when the changes will affect the classroom. Parents can only hope it is not too late by then.

Nationally, average scores among fourth- and eighth-grade students increased in math by 27 points and 20 points, respectively, between 1990 and 2009. Yet since 2009, and a decade is almost the length of a child’s K-12 career, the improvement stalled. Reading scores have improved by just three points in both grades since 1992.

It is these scores and other comparisons that have not changed that should bother reformers and policymakers alike in 2019. Last summer, Harvard University’s Paul Peterson wrote in Education Next that the test score gap on NAEP and international tests between students from low-income families and their more affluent peers has not changed since the 1960s. Peterson wrote later that the “performances on math, reading, and science tests of the most advantaged and the most disadvantaged students differ by approximately four years’ worth of learning, a disparity that has remained essentially unchanged for nearly half a century.”

Such findings temper enthusiasm for any year-to-year increases. So, too, do the results from NAEP’s other test, the Long-Term Trend Assessment (LTT). Average scores for 17-year-olds in math and reading have not changed since the 1970s (the LTT was last given in 2012 and is scheduled to resume in 2020). Students appear to lose any gains made in elementary and middle school by graduation.

Over time, these results have been depressingly more of the same, which should incentivize education reformers and policymakers not to do the same things. Such as: In the last two years, many state policymakers were either absent or complicit in teacher union attempts to keep students in assigned district schools by curbing charter school growth in Los Angeles and Chicago and blocking new private learning options in Kentucky and West Virginia.

These options are the most significant departures from the routine of school-by-zip-code because parents can help a struggling child immediately by moving them to a new setting with a charter school, private school scholarship or education savings account. Students will not have to wait for the urgent meetings to finish, hoping to find success this time.

Now that would be different. 

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