NAEP Scores Flatline, Achievement Gaps Persist. Millions of Children Are Still Left Behind

For almost two decades since the passage of No Child Left Behind, our society has been operating according to an educational policy scheme by which we say we’ve been holding educators accountable. The two year National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores were released this week, however, and while experts are parsing the meaning of the difference of a couple of points of gain or loss at fourth or eighth grade on the new  scores, what is clear is that No Child Left Behind has neither significantly raised student achievement nor closed racial and economic achievement gaps.

For the Washington Post, Moriah Balingit reports: “The gap between high- and low-achieving students widened on a national math and science exam, a disparity that educators say is another sign that schools need to do more to lift the performance of their most challenged students.  Averages for fourth-and eighth-graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also called the Nation’s Report Card, were mostly unchanged between 2015 and 2017.  The exception was eighth-grade reading scores, which rose slightly.  But scores for the bottom 25 percent of students dropped slightly in all but eighth-grade reading.  Scores for the top quartile rose slightly in eighth-grade reading and math.  The slippage among the nation’s lowest-performing students raised concerns among educators and experts….  Peggy G. Carr, associate commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics, said there were no statistically significant changes when it came to different categories of students.  This means black and Hispanic students continue to trail their white counterparts on the exam. Students from low-income households also performed below the national average, as did special-education students, though they posted significant gains in 2017 compared with two years earlier.”

Unlike state-by-state achievement tests mandated by the 2002 No Child Left Behind and continued under the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, the NAEP is given to a representative sampling of students across all the states. Its purpose is to gauge the overall state of public education across the nation, not to compare scores for particular states or schools.  There is no test-prep for the NAEP.

Education Week‘s Sarah Sparks summarizes the 2017 results: “Across the board struggling American students are falling behind, while top performers are rising higher.”  This certainly reflects the growing gap noticed by Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon who, several years ago, used a massive data set to document the consequences of widening economic inequality for children’s outcomes at school. Reardon showed that while in 1970, only 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods classified as affluent or poor, by 2007, 31 percent of families lived in such neighborhoods. By 2007, fewer families across America lived in mixed income communities. Reardon also demonstrated that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap. The achievement gap between the children with income in the top ten percent and the children with income in the bottom ten percent, was 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975, and twice as large as the black-white achievement gap.

In an Education Week follow-up on the release, also this week, of a special subset of NAEP data comparing the scores of large urban school districts, Sparks declares that over time, “America’s large urban districts have been improving faster than the nation as a whole.” Scores in cities of over 250,000 are rising more quickly than the scores of other students, but rising so slowly that it will take decades for them to catch up if growth continues at the current rate. A basic score on NAEP is the lowest level, while proficient is scored in such a way that students deemed proficient are achieving at somewhat above an average level. Sparks describes the trend of rising scores among urban students: “These gains are a mixed blessing: Urban 4th graders scored on average at the basic level in math and reading. Urban 8th graders scored on average at the basic level in reading and below basic in math. Yet, 27 percent of urban 8th graders scored at or above the proficient level in reading in 2017, up 8 percentage points since 2007.  That’s faster than the 5 percentage-point reading growth for students overall.”

For the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Patrick O’Donnell describes a mixed bag of gains and losses for students in that very poor city: “The major bright spot was in eighth-grade math, where Cleveland had the third-highest increase among cities. That placed Cleveland’s scores ahead of the Baltimore, Detroit, Fresno and Milwaukee districts and in a tie with Shelby County (Memphis), Tenn. The district also mostly held on to a sizeable gain it made in fourth grade reading between 2014 and 2015, the previous NAEP test, falling just a single statistically insignificant point. But fourth grade math and eighth grade reading scores had the worst and third-worst drops out of all tested cities.”

The Detroit Free Press’s Lori Higgins reports discouraging scores in that other very poor Rust Belt city: “In Detroit, students had the worst performance not only among large, urban districts but also compared with all states in fourth- and eighth-grade math, as well as fourth-grade reading.  Detroit shared the bottom spot with Cleveland for eighth-grade reading.”

This year the NAEP was administered online to 80 percent of students, and there has been complaining that the change may have lowered scores. However, Peggy Carr of the National Center for Education Statistics explained to the Post‘s Balingit that scores were formally adjusted to compensate for the online administration of the test—and to make the scores comparable with the older paper-and-pencil version: “Research shows digital assessments are tougher for students than paper-and-pencil tests. So, Carr said, her federal center adjusted results so the change in format ‘would not influence the comparisons and trends that we are reporting.'”

The stated purpose of federal policy in education since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002 has been to hold schools accountable for raising achievement among the nation’s lowest scoring students and to close achievement gaps. In the meantime, as the teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky have shown us this month, states have cut funding for education due to the economic recession of 2008 and continued tax slashing across many states.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) has documented this trend, with 29 states in 2015 providing less overall funding, adjusted for inflation, than in 2008. In 19 of those states, local school districts also cut funding. Comparing 2018 general fund, per-pupil formula funding in 12 states for which that data is currently available, CBPP reports that Oklahoma, Texas, Kentucky, Alabama, Arizona, West Virginia, Mississippi, Utah, Kansas, Michigan, North Carolina, and Idaho spend considerably less today than they did in 2008.

Nobody traces small changes in NAEP scores to particular causes from school district to school district. Surely, however, three major trends are implicated in the flattening of NAEP scores over time.

  • Our society has not addressed deepening poverty and widening inequality, at a time when growing research demonstrates that family and neighborhood poverty affects children’s achievement at school.
  • Nearly two decades of education policy has focused on punishing public schools—too often the schools in our poorest communities—by closing schools, by firing teachers and principals, by charterizing schools, or by imposing portfolio governance.
  • As school teachers are now exposing, funding in too many places has collapsed below acceptable levels.
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3 thoughts on “NAEP Scores Flatline, Achievement Gaps Persist. Millions of Children Are Still Left Behind

  1. “For almost two decades…” you wrote startled me into the realization of how long our public schools, and by that I mean the children and their teachers, have had to cope, struggle, and sometimes suffer at the hands of those who think they know better how children should be taught and at the hands of those who want to destroy the public education system. But the teachers have nevertheless persisted at doing best what called them to this profession: to help the students reach their greatest potential and take their place as contributing members of society for the future of America. As a grandfather, I have watched over these two decades four of my grandchildren grow and learn and now be ready to go off to college. They have learned in the classrooms of excellent teachers who have had to cope with reduction in funding, loss of contractual rights, disdain from public officials, and threats to their teaching position as a result of test scores that fail to reach a subjective and arbitrary standard set by nonprofessionals. I can’t think of another profession that would tolerate or could survive this type of pummeling. And yet they persist for the sake of their students. I am so proud that I can say until my dying day that I taught in the public schools. Thank you dear teachers, and as one of my heroes in the field of reading, Dr. Russell G. Stauffer, liked to say, “Onward ardently!”

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