Nation’s ‘report card’ cause for hand-wringing – or optimism

Credit: iStockphoto.comCredit: iStockphoto.comAgainst the backdrop of  enthusiasm regarding new reforms underway in California, from the Common Core to the Local Control Funding Formula, the just-released scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, brought a brush with reality.
Mirroring national results, scores in California on 4th-grade math dipped by 2 points and in 8th-grade math by 1 point compared with 2013, the last time the NAEP (pronounced nape) was administered.  In reading, scores were flat in 4th-grade  but dropped by 3 points in 8th-grade.
California continued to rank near the bottom compared with other states. In 4th-grade reading it ranked 49th, and  ranked 43d in 8th-grade reading. In math, the state ranked near the bottom as well.
Media outlets published the scores with the usual depressing headlines.
“California’s decade of gains on this test just ended,” read one Los Angeles Times story.
“California test scores in the cellar,” read another in the San Jose Mercury News.
But what exactly do these scores tell us? It turns out that much depends on which scores one chooses to focus on, what time frame one looks at, and whether one looks at growth in scores rather than at scores at fixed points in time.
Those who don’t analyze tests for a living are likely to be confused.
For example, Terry Mazany, the chair of the National Assessment Governing Board, said that despite the dip in scores this year, scores are far higher than when the test was first administered in 1990. Mazany said the “big story” of this year’s tests was the narrowing of the test-score gap between large urban school districts and the rest of the nation.
Former California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig said that the state is “still among the fastest-growing states since 2009 in 8th-grade scores.” California also leads the nation, along with Washington, D.C., in 8th-grade growth in reading scores, Honig said. Those scores have gone up by 6 points since 2009, compared with a national growth of  1 point. California, Honig added, is also among the four highest states in its growth in 8th-grade math scores.
Optimist reformers who promoted  the Common Core standards could reasonably have hoped that gradual implementation of the new standards in California classrooms, and those in most other states in recent years, might have nudged NAEP scores up even slightly.
That is especially the case in light of a report issued last week by the NAEP Validity Studies Panel  indicating that there is a “reasonable overlap” between  the NAEP and what the Common Core expects of students, at least on math.
But because the Common Core standards are designed to progress cumulatively from grade to grade, it will take several years before students will experience their full impact.  The gains should be greatest for those children who begin in kindergarten and have the benefit of instruction that builds on the standards on each of the preceding grades.
So should the fact that NAEP scores did not rise be a cause for concern?
Here, too, the advice was to keep anxiety levels in check. Mazany and others cautioned against placing too much emphasis on one year’s scores as a signal of a  downward trend.
“As a country, we have made progress over time,” Mazany said. “It is likely that there will be some ups and downs.”
“We don’t know yet if these changes … are long-term,” said Peggy Carr, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP.
However, Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State Schools Officers, which represents state education heads in all 50 states, emphasized the lack of progress. This year’s scores, he said, “confirm that we have a long way to go with our kids across the country.”
At the same time, he said, tests are “an important data point,” but that there are “other data points that are also important,” such as graduation rates.
President Obama made a similar warning on a video he posted on Facebook cautioning against the overuse of tests, and saying they should not be the only measure of a student’s or a school’s progress. “Tests should be just one source of information, used alongside classroom work, surveys and other factors to give us an all-around look at how our students and schools are doing,” he said.
The scores on the subset of big-city school districts, including three in California (Los Angeles Unified, San Diego and Fresno) also provided a “glass half-full/half-empty” analysis. In Los Angeles Unified, for example, reading scores were flat, and math scores showed a slight decline. The district’s overall test scores put it in the bottom third of 21 big districts nationwide whose scores were reported separately.
Yet, as the Los Angeles Times reported, scores in 8th grade reading for low income students in the district have risen more than in any other district in the sample since 2003 — some 16 points.  In 4th grade reading, Latino students’ scores grew faster than those in the majority of those districts.  African American scores in math also rose at an impressive rate.
Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, pointing to the narrowing of the gap between large urban school districts and the rest of the nation when looked at since 2003, said that in general we should be “encouraged by the progress so many of the cities have made.”
Is it even reasonable to expect students to do better academically each year?
That is a question that Gov. Jerry Brown, arguably the biggest skeptic about the entire testing enterprise among all the nation’s governors, has asked.
“They are getting little children at the age of 5 infected with this idea that everything is measurable, and that they are accountable every day to improve,” he said in May. “I can tell you that the idea that you can improve every day for the rest of your life is not true. I just think there is a bit of a life cycle. Things go up and go down.”
That seemed to be a distinctly minority view on Wednesday. “It makes sense for kids to improve every year,” said Minnich, representing the Chief State Schools Officers.  “It is reasonable to expect to see scores going up every year.”
Wait for that to happen next year – or not.
 
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