November 6, 2022

John Thompson: Lessons from the NAEP

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John Thompson, an Oklahoma educator, takes a look at what lessons can be found in the NAEP scores.

It’s no surprise that Covid has produced a significant drop in student learning as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). However, a careful reading of its 2022 report would provide two lessons. The second is the need for a careful reading of what NAEP actually says about historical and current student outcomes. The first would be the statement by the Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, Peggy Carr:

There’s nothing in this data that tells us that there is a measurable difference in the performance between states and districts based solely on how long schools were closed. 

Secondly, it is no surprise that “reformers” who seek to privatize schools have ramped up their fifty year campaign to misrepresent NAEP test scores to further attack public education. As the Brookings Institute’s Tom Loveless explains, they proclaim, “‘Look how bad our schools are,’ and ‘Look how ignorant our kids are.’”

It is sad, however, that so many politicians, think tanks, and reporters ignore decades of social science that explain why, “Using NAEP’s proficient level as a basis for education policy is a bad idea.” Neither have they respected NAEP’s own explanation “that what most people would consider to be proficient performance would not meet NAEP’s definition of proficiency.

The Network for Public Education’s Peter Greene further explains that “NAEP’s ‘proficient’ is set considerably higher than grade level,” and cites research concluding, while “NAEP considers ‘basic’ students not college ready, 50% of those basic students had gone on to earn a degree.” So, while no education category is perfect, using the term “basic” would be better, on a scientific level, and it would not encourage destructive and misleading attacks on educators.

James Harvey saw his original draft of A Nation at Risk twisted and weaponized by the Reagan administration, and how their equally false use of NAEP scores helped drive high stakes testing and school privatization. Harvey would prefer the names “low, intermediate, high, and advanced” achievement levels to “give more a neutral take on student scores.”

Next, we should learn from the big, diagnostic pictures that NAEP documents. As NAEP expert Diane Ravitch reported, the rate of test score growth improved until No Child Left Behind was implemented. Fourth grade Reading scores increased to 219 by 2002. Growth declined to 2 points between 2005 to 2007.

And as Loveless said, “The 1990 national average in eighth grade scale scores was 263,” and it increased by 10 points by 2003. After No Child Left Behind invested billions of dollars in test-driven, competition-drive reforms, growth stagnated, increasing only four points in the next 12 years.

Today, the focus is justifiably on the Covid learning losses. But, if we want schools to improve, we must evaluate the decline in student performance from 1998 to 2019.

The Tulsa World reported on the decline of average Oklahoma NAEP scores, explaining that Fourth grade Reading scores dropped from 216 in 2019 to 208 in 2022. Eight grade Reading scores dropped from 258 in 2019 to 251 in 2022. But, just as important, since 1998, Fourth grade Reading scores dropped 11 points, and Eight grade scores dropped 14 points. And this was after billions of extra dollars were spent on test-driven, choice-driven school reform. Or should I say they dropped because we funded those doomed-to-fail mandates?

As Oklahoma Watch’s Jennifer Palmer reports, Oklahoma’s state test scores have improved in the last year. But, I believe, to recover and blossom after nearly twenty years of learning losses, we must implement holistic and humane responses to both the learning losses caused by Covid, and the losses prompted by school reform. We must lay a foundation of trusting, loving relationships and socio-emotional instruction. As my former principal Joyce Henderson says, “The community doesn’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Then we build curriculums that respect all children’s minds.

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