The 2015 NAEP results are finally out and the news isn’t great. Overall scores are flat or down from 2013, marking a break from the upward trend over the past two decades. Achievement gaps also remain persistent.
As was expected, coverage has been pretty focused on the decreases across the country, though I think on balance it has been pretty evenhanded. It looks like the message regarding misNAEPery has gotten through to most major news outlets, with stories prominently including cautions against drawing conclusions based on only this year’s scores. Education Secretary Arne Duncan believes the long-term trends will straighten out and continue in the right direction:
Big change never happens overnight. I’m confident that over the next decade, if we stay committed to this change, we will see historic improvements.
States where students achieve higher scores rightly attract attention, and the District of Columbia stands out once again. In terms of overall scores, Massachusetts once again topped the nation. While the sustained reform efforts there are impressive and should provide lessons for other states, I wish more attention was given to how troubling it is that the “best” state in the country only manages to prepare about half of its students to achieve proficiency in math and reading.
We’ll certainly see more thoughtful commentary over the coming days, but there are already some early birds worth reading. You should absolutely check out Morgan Polikoff’s quick thoughts. And Matt Chingos at the Urban Institute, following up on his excellent report regarding how NAEP scores for similar students vary among states, provides a back-of-the-envelope adjustment of 2015 scores to reflect demographics. While there are some interesting shifts in terms of how states compare to each other, on the whole it appears that demographic shifts are unlikely to explain the decline, which according to Chingos equals approximately 1.5 months of learning between 2013 and 2015.
Of course, not all commentary has been reasonable or thoughtful. Critics of meaningful school reforms were all too excited to jump on today’s news as proof that reforms aren’t working.
The National Education Policy Center, a frequent critic of education reform, concludes that “the potpourri of education ‘reform’ policy has not moved the needle.” Not only is such a conclusion unsupported by the 2015 NAEP scores, but it also doesn’t hold up under review of the evidence.
American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten seized today’s NAEP results to score political points:
Not only is there plenty of anecdotal evidence that our kids have suffered, these latest NAEP scores again show that the strategy of testing and sanctioning, coupled with austerity, does not work.
There are two problems with these arguments. First, there are numerous examples that run directly counter to the anti-reform narrative. If Randi Weingarten were right with her statement above, then California—easily the most defiant state in the country when it comes to implementing accountability for schools and educators—would be racing ahead of the pack on the 2015 NAEP.
Likewise, Washington, D.C., perhaps the most aggressive place in the country when it comes to reforms, would slide backward.
But the bigger problem is that reforms have only been implemented piecemeal in the overwhelming majority of states. Many states do not yet have actual teacher and principal evaluation systems in place. And even where they exist in policy, they are rarely implemented in practice. Few states are using them to hold educators accountable for student progress. And although all states have some sort of accountability system to identify low-performing schools and districts, there is little in the way of actual accountability.
A few exceptions aside, states and districts are not closing low-performing traditional public schools for performance reasons; only a handful have taken steps to take over low-performing schools and districts. And despite the fact that charter schools are immensely popular in the states that allow them, they are still serving only about 6 percent of students nationwide.
Conveniently ignoring reality and instead attempting to say that a dip in national scores reflects poorly on reform is intellectually dishonest. The truth is that by and large, the 2015 NAEP results—whatever they tell us—reflect a public school system that is in transition, but still looks pretty much the same as it has for decades. And that system continues to serve over half of its students poorly.