Why Is NAEP Flat Or Falling? Part 1

Guestposts coming...today Sandy Kress

Last week’s NAEP results were received with less handwringing than you might have expected given that in the past relatively insignificant changes garnered a lot of attention. But the results matter – a lot. Especially if you consider it’s a precursor to the learning loss subsequently caused by the pandemic.

What’s going on? There are multiple theories and I’ve asked a few folks to discuss them here. Today Sandy Kress, education advisor to President George W. Bush and a former school board leader discusses accountability. Tomorrow school finance expert Marguerite Roza discusses money.  And we’ll also look at Common Core and the shifts in instruction associated with that reform. If you have another theory reach out and let me know.

Here’s Sandy’s take:

Accountability Works, Until It’s No Longer Accountability – By Sandy Kress

Although folks involved in K-12 policy disagree on many things, they will largely agree that the declines in achievement since 2012 are extremely disappointing and very worrisome. To learn of this lost ground after the economically strong decade of the 2010s and while we await even worse results coming out of the COVID period – this is all incredibly dispiriting.

Let’s look at samples of these discouraging outcomes.

In math, for 13-year-old blacks, the Long-Term Trend NAEP shows that while they made a nice gain of 13 scale score points (251-264) from 1999 to 2012, they lost a good part of it by 2020, back down to 256.

The bottom 10% of students fell from 240 to 228 from 2012 to 2020. The bottom 25% fell from 263 to 255.

In reading, 9-year-old blacks made impressive gains from 1999-2012 of 20 scale score points (186-206). Over the next 8 years, they were stagnant, falling back 1.

The bottom 10% of 4th graders grew 12 points from 1998-2009 but fell back 7 from 2009-2020. The bottom 25% grew 8 in the earlier period but fell back 2 in the latter.

So much for every student succeeding. We made progress in achievement in some states just before No Child Left Behind was passed and considerable progress nationally afterwards. But then we lost ground badly.

So, why did we make progress in the 2000s and go stagnant-to-bad in the 2010s?

Let’s begin with the data scientists’ warning: we don’t know for sure. Until we do serious cause and effect research, we can’t prove our assertions.

But we’d be irresponsible to leave it there. Policymakers and citizens can’t look at these trends and walk away, frozen from acting, because we can’t know for sure the scientifically proven explanation.

What we must do is put forward our best hypotheses and act on what seems truest.

Let’s look at some of the most popular explanations.

Could it be Common Core standards? Without citing the research, I’ll summarize it: Common Core had no significant impact, one way or the other, on student achievement.

Some say the drops may be due to the Great Recession of 2007-2009. Unless students were so severely traumatized, and on a virtually unprecedented basis, there’s no proof student achievement should have continued to fall for a decade after the recession ended.

Money? Some argue money makes a great difference; some say not. In any event, education spending increased for most of the years achievement dropped.

Instead, I want to argue that once we reduced or eliminated consequences for failing to make progress for disadvantaged students, we should not be surprised that their achievement went south.

It began when Secretary Duncan let consequences for failing to make progress be diminished by states that agreed to buy into the Administration’s teacher effectiveness and Common Core initiatives.

The weakening of the commitment to accountability was formalized in the passage of the ironically misnamed Every Student Succeeds Act. Then, states, in effect, could stay soft, and studies showed that’s what many did.

The solid research on accountability (Carnoy and Loeb, 2002; Hanushek and Raymond, 2005; and others) shows that accountability moves the achievement needle positively. Plus, we’ve learned much more over the years. If we use this knowledge and hold ourselves accountable for improving student achievement, it improves.

Improve by how much? It all depends. If our commitment is widespread and we fix problems that arise, improvement might be greater, perhaps far greater, than in the past.

Here’s the burning question for us now: dare we allow 2009 to be the peak of student achievement in American history?