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?”

2013 NAEP Scores Show (Again) That Test-and-Punish Hasn’t Worked

Yesterday the  National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores from 2013 were released.  According to Education Week, eighth grade math scores rose by one point with a three point gain in reading.  Fourth graders gained a point in math with no significant change in reading.

The NAEP is a test given across the states every two years.  It is used neither to diagnose students’ specific learning needs nor to evaluate any specific child’s performance nor to evaluate teachers or specific schools.  Not all schools are tested and not all children who take the test are given the entire test.  It is administered across the country as an overall assessment of how America’s public schools are doing.

Diane Ravitch, who served for several years on the National Assessment Governing Board, explains the operation and significance of NAEP in her new book Reign of Error: “NAEP is central to any discussion of whether American students and the public schools they attend are doing well or badly. It has measured reading and math and other subjects over time.  It is administered to samples of students; no one knows who will take it, no one can prepare to take it, no one takes the whole test.  There are no stakes attached to NAEP; no student ever gets a test score.” (p. 45)  Ravitch explains that the NAEP has tested students every two years since 1992, with a long form that has been administered since the early 1970s.

For all groups of children—at all ethnic, racial, and economic levels—NAEP scores have been slowly and steadily climbing over time.  Achievement gaps by race and economics, however, have not narrowed; although black and brown and poor children have steadily improved their scores, so have white and Asian children.  According to the reports in yesterday’s press, the long term trend was not interrupted in the 2013 NAEP scores.  Education Week reports: “In 2013, 51 percent of Asian students and 46 percent of white students reached proficiency in 4th grade reading, compared with 20 percent of Hispanic students and 18 percent of black students…  Only one quarter of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals reached proficiency in 4th grade math, compared with 59 percent of their wealthier peers.”  Because the proficiency benchmark score is known to be set very high for the NAEP, the overall low numbers of reported proficiency should not frighten us. However, the persistent gaps by race, ethnicity and economic level are deeply troubling.

There are a couple of obvious facts that stand out. First, the No Child Left Behind Act with its test-and-punish philosophy, that tried to scare educators into working harder and smarter and doing more with less, has not succeeded in its goal of closing achievement gaps.  Neither have the huge national competitive grant programs of the Obama-Duncan Department of Education.  These experiments in test-based-accountability have not addressed the inequities that are closely tied to achievement gaps.

While we ought to be relieved that the mass of standardized testing our children face today has not entirely reversed past progress, we must face the reality that test-and-punish school reform has failed to address the needs of our society’s poorest children who continue to struggle.  According to Motoko Rich in the NY Times, the highest scoring states on this year’s NAEP include Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Jersey, states with lower proportions of children living in poverty.

Scores this year climbed fastest in Washington, D.C., but when Gary Rubenstein, a New York City math teacher and blogger, examined the numbers, he discovered that Washington, D.C.’s NAEP scores remain 64 points below the national average, lower than scores in any state.  His analysis demonstrates that the gap between students who qualify for free lunch and those who don’t qualify remains wider in Washington, D.C. than in any state: a shocking 157 points.

Test Scores Released Today in New York: Just Another Arbitrary Way to Discredit Public Schools (and Hurt Children)

Today New York released the scores from last spring’s round of standardized testing. This time the tests and the scoring are based on the more demanding standards being imposed by the new Common Core.

In a cascade of Orwellian language, Shael Suransky, who heads up testing for the New York City Schools, wrote to school officials to prepare them for a shocking drop in scores.  He asks them to spin the new lower scores as a step toward “equal opportunity,” and he assures school leaders that “we are also making sure it is not punitive. These results will not be used to evaluate teachers this year (emphasis mine), and students and schools will not be punished.”

The tests are pegged to benchmarks resembling those used for many years to interpret the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), called the nation’s report card.  Diane Ravitch, who has served on NAEP’s board, has continued to warn about the danger of using such standards.  Here is her comment yesterday:  “What you need to know about NAEP achievement levels is that they are not benchmarked to international standards. They are based on the judgment calls of panels made up of people from different walks of life who decide what students in fourth grade and eighth grade should know and be able to do.  It is called ‘the modified Angoff method’ and is very controversial among scholars and psychometricians.  Setting the bar so high is one thing when assessing samples at a state and national level (the purpose of NAEP), but quite another when it becomes the basis for judging individual students.  It is scientism run amok.  It is unethical.  It sets the bar where only 30-35% can clear it.  Why would we do this to the nation’s children?”

This morning, anticipating New York’s release of the new lower test scores, the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss publishes an excellent piece by Carol Burris, New York’s 2013 Principal of the Year.  Burris asks us to recall Charles Dickens’ novel, Hard Times, in which Burris reminds us, “School Master Gradgrind, obsessed with data and facts, humiliates ‘Girl number 20’ who cannot ‘define a horse’… The chapter is a chilling and uncanny allegory for the data-driven, test-obsessed reforms that are now overwhelming our schools.”

Burris continues: “Our youngest children are being asked to meet unrealistic expectations.  New York’s model curriculum for first graders includes knowing the meaning of words that include ‘cuneiform,’ ‘sarcophagus,’ and ‘ziggurat.’… If we are not careful, the development of social skills, the refinement of fine motor skills, and most importantly, the opportunity to celebrate the talents and experiences of every child will be squeezed out of the school day.”

In 2005 (revised to its current form in 2008) the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education and Literacy published a simple critique of the test-and-punish strategy of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), Ten Moral Concerns in No Child Left Behind.  Supporting a “whole child” philosophy of education, the Committee criticized the narrow, arbitrary, and punitive strategy of NCLB:  “As people of faith we do not view our children as products to be tested and managed but instead as unique human beings, created in the image of God, to be nurtured and educated.”  “The law has not acknowledged that every child is uniqiue and that Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) thresholds are merely benchmarks set by human beings.”

The nation’s test-and-punish public education strategy has not diminished despite intense criticism of NCLB.  These days scores on standardized tests are being used to judge not only children’s achievement but also the performance of their teachers and their schools.  Financial rewards and punishments for schools and educators have ensued along with school closures and privatization.  Perhaps Dickens’ Hard Times would be a good choice for the mass of book clubs and reading groups that have sprung up across the land.