John Thompson: Is The NAEP In Trouble?
John Thompson takes a look at the “gold standard” of school assessment and James Harvey’s critique of the venerable test. Reposted with permission.
Yes, American democracy is in danger. Trumpism is the latest (and worst) version of assaults on our governmental institutions that took off during the Reagan administration. Today’s anger is rooted in Supply Side Economics’ dramatic acceleration of de-industrialization, Jerry Falwell’s theocracy, the NRA’s extreme lobbying power, and the falsehoods spread by the other rightwing think tanks that pretend their spin is a product of “science” comparable to that of universities’ and governmental research institutions.
Yes, public education is also in danger, even though National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data reports that student performance has risen steadily since 1971. Or at least NAEP scores increased steadily until the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) teach-to-the-test policies produced a brief surge and then stagnation in outcomes. Then, Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top (RttT) put NCLB on steroids in a doomed shortcut for bringing equity to the lowest performing schools. Since the RttT was fully implemented in 2012, scores for students in the bottom ten percentile steadily declined until 2020.
During the Covid pandemic, the decline in student performance has continued and it has continued to be worse for poor students of color. And without very different and dramatic interventions, it is virtually inevitable that suffering by low-income and high-challenge students will continue to grow.
Then came the “fake news” about Critical Race Theory and Social and Emotional Learning; and attacks on gay and transgender students; as well as another school privatization campaign. The cumulative effect of these hateful “alt” facts-driven assaults, after nearly two decades of corporate reformers slandering teachers and driving so much of the joy of learning out of classrooms, is that public education is facing an existential threat.
To save our schools, we should remember that the dishonest campaigns against public education also took off during the Reagan Administration. That is why James Harvey’s The Lies Promoted by NAEP’s Absurd Benchmarks is a must read. Harvey helped write the pivotal A Nation at Risk report, but it was Reagan’s spinsters’, not the Commission Excellence in Education which conducted the study, who turned it into a weapon against meaningful instruction.
Harvey explains that the Commission had been launched as an effort to fend off Reagan’s proposal to abolish the Education Department. It “laid out a strong argument in favor of a vigorous federal presence in education to support vulnerable students, aid higher education and research, and protect civil rights.” But, “these suggestions were quickly relegated to the dust bin of history.”
Harvey sought to, “Make sure all infants have a decent start in life so that they’re ‘ready’ when school begins. Worry about the 80 percent of their waking hours that students spend outside the school walls. Provide adequate health care for children and a living wage for working parents, along with affordable day-care.”
But a line was added at the end of the process that became famous. Harvey did not agree with and tried to cut the words: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
But the spin-masters used it as a tool for convincing the politicians that schools were irreparably broken. And that led to the misuse of NAEP data in an assault on education.
Although Harvey is critical of its confusing terminology, it is NAEP’s benchmarks, as opposed to its metrics, that are destructive. The misuse of the “Proficiency” category has contributed to decades of falsehoods being thrown at public education. Even high-quality newspapers like the Washington Post have allowed market-driven reformers to spread the lie that Proficiency correlates with “grade level.” Harvey protests, “Every couple of years, public alarm spikes over reports that only one-third of American students are performing at grade level in reading and math.”
In fact, the best estimate is that the “Basic” category correlates with grade level. So, “grade-level performance in reading and mathematics in grades 4, 8 and 12, is almost never below 60 percent and reaches as high as 81 percent.” For instance, Harvey explains, “81 percent of American fourth-graders are performing at grade level in mathematics. Reading? Sixty-six percent.”
Contrary to the propaganda which says that “only one-third of American fourth-graders are said to be proficient in reading by NAEP, international assessments of fourth-grade reading judged American students to rank as high as No. 2 in the world.” And, “Sophisticated analyses between 2007 and 2019 demonstrate that not a single nation can demonstrate that even 50 percent of its students can clear the proficiency benchmark in fourth-grade reading.”
Moreover, Harvey notes, “half the 17-year-olds maligned as being just basic by NAEP obtained four-year college degrees. About one-third of Advanced Placement Calculus students, the crème de la crème of American high school students, failed to meet the NAEP proficiency benchmark.”