John Merrow: “Test-Based Accountability Has Failed Miserably”

Scores for high school seniors on the National Assessment of Education Progress, the NAEP, a national test considered the best gauge of our public schools over time, were released this week.  Math scores declined and reading scores flat-lined.  The test is administered across the country every other year.  The 2015 scores for students in grades 4-8 were released last fall, while 2015 scores for 12th graders were released this week.

Diane Ravitch knows a lot about the NAEP.  Appointed by President Bill Clinton, she served on the National Assessment Governing Board for seven years. She describes what this test is: “NAEP is an audit test. It is given every other year to samples of students in every state and in about 20 urban districts. No one can prepare for it, and no one gets a grade. NAEP measures the rise or fall of average scores for states… in reading and math and reports them by race, gender, disability status, English language ability, economic status, and a variety of other measures.”

Here is how Liana Heitin, a reporter for Education Week, describes the 2015 test results for high school seniors:  “Much like their 4th and 8th grade peers, high school seniors have lost ground in math over the last two years…. In reading, 12th grade scores remained flat, continuing a trend since 2009.”

It is interesting to consider that this year’s high school seniors were beginning their formal education just as No Child Left Behind’s  school accountability scheme was getting underway.  The law was signed by President George W. Bush in January of 2002 and in the early stages of implementation in the fall of 2003, as these students started Kindergarten. They are the first generation of students educated entirely in the era of high stakes test-and-punish. The goal of No Child Left Behind, as its name tells us, was to improve school achievement for all students and most particularly to close achievement gaps for those left behind.

Among this year’s high school seniors in that first NCLB generation, it is the students in the lowest-scoring 10 percent of the students tested who demonstrated that they have fallen farthest behind. Heitin explains: “Perhaps the most striking detail in the test data… is that the lowest achievers showed large score drops in both math and reading.  Between 2013 and 2015, students at or below the 10th percentile in reading went down an average of 6 points… the largest drop in a two-year period since 1994.  The high achievers, on the other hand—those at or above the 90th percentile—did significantly better in reading, gaining two points on average, while staying stagnant in math.”

What about achievement gaps? Heitin continues: “The data also show that large racial and ethnic achievement gaps have persisted.  White and Asian students continue to significantly outperform their black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native peers.  While 47 percent of Asian students and 32 percent of white students scored at or above proficient in math, just 7 percent of black students and 12 percent of Hispanic students did the same. There were no changes in the black-white and white-Hispanic score gaps for math or reading between 2013 and 2015.”

Reporters have asked whether the drop in scores might indicate that high school seniors are not taking the test seriously.  Heitin reports that NAEP officials replied: “Students are not interacting with this assessment any differently than they have in the past.”

John Merrow, the long-experienced and now-retired PBS education reporter, explains what he thinks these scores mean:

“It turns out that scores are down five points over the last 23 years on the (poorly named) ‘National Assessment of Educational Progress.’  The newest NEAP scores also reveal a widening gap in math and reading between those who score well and those who do not.  That has to be particularly disappointing to those reformers who go on and on about ‘Closing the Achievement Gap.’… (P)erhaps it’s time someone pointed out that test-based accountability, which has meant more drill and test prep and cuts in art, music, drama and all sorts of other courses that aren’t deemed ‘basic,’ has failed miserably—and there are victims.

“Students have been the losers, sentenced to mind-numbing schooling. Teachers who care about their craft have been the losers.  Craven administrators who couldn’t or didn’t stand up for what they know about learning have been the losers.  Add to the list of losers the general public, because the drumbeat of bad news has undercut faith in public education.

“There are winners: The testing companies (particularly Pearson), the academics who’ve gotten big grants from major foundations, profiteers in the charter school industry, and ideologues and politicians who want to undermine public education.

“As I see it, the underlying message of the newest NAEP results is that ‘The emperor has no clothes.’  We’ve actually known this for some time, so isn’t it time to acknowledge the truth?”