The 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results are out. The standardized tests, given to a national sample of 4th and 8th grade students, are considered by people across the educational spectrum to be the most accurate assessment we have of student achievement in reading and math. That doesn't mean they should be taken as gospel, but they succeed at their assigned task far better than the high stakes — and highly prepped and highly gamed — state tests, which should only be taken seriously when sprinkled with copious grains of salt.
Some takeaways from the 2019 NAEP:
• The national results aren't encouraging.
• The Arizona results are somewhat better.
• The white-minority gap is shrinking.
• The educational inequality is growing.
• Trump's queen of education, Betsy DeVos, hearing achievement is at a standstill and schools are starving for funds, replied, "Let them eat choice."
Let's break it down.
The National Center for Education Statistics administers and analyses the NAEP. According to
associate commissioner Peggy Carr, "Over the past decade, there has been no progress in either mathematics or reading performance, and the lowest-performing students are doing worse."
The math and reading achievement scores have been basically flat since 2009. Actually, they've been flat since Bush's No Child Left Behind began in 2002, when the president and the Congress decided the answer to our educational problems is testing students within an inch of their lives. Students had been making measurable progress since 1972, a period which is often thought of as the bad old days of education. We were dubbed a "Nation At Risk" because of our terrible schools, and we had to do something to fix it. What we did was turn our schools into test-prep and test-taking factories, which stalled whatever educational progress we had been making before NCLB.
Arizona, however, has done better than the nation as a whole. The state's test scores are still either at the national average or slightly below, but they have been creeping upward while the nation's haven't budged.
Why are Arizona's scores improving? No one knows. Some people say it shows money in education isn't all that important. Others say it's our dedicated teachers. Still others say our growing charter school sector is upping the state's education game. The state Department of Education says, think how much better we'd be doing if we had enough funding.
Me, honestly, I have no idea why the state scores are on an upward trajectory, other than it's a good thing.
And here's something else I can't explain. For some reason, the scores of Arizona's black students have risen until, starting a few years ago, they were significantly higher than the national average. Again, that's a good thing, but why? It could be that, for some reason, we're doing a better job educating black students than other states, or maybe the black population's socioeconomic status is higher than elsewhere.
But for some reason I also can't explain, since 2015 the scores of Arizona's black students have taken a nosedive. In the most extreme example, in 2017 the state's 8th grade reading score for black students was five points higher than the national average. In 2019, it's five points lower. I doubt we're doing a worse job with the state's black students. The only reasonable conclusion I can draw from this is, we need add a pinch of salt to the NAEP scores, especially when looking at short-term variations — not as much as we sprinkle on high stakes tests, but some. Standardized testing is as standardized testing does.
The good national news is, the difference in scores between white and minority — specifically Black and Latino — students has shrunk consistently since the 1970s and is still shrinking. White achievement scores remain higher, but the gap has closed significantly.
But problematically, the already large gap between the highest and lowest performing students is widening. Over the past decade, the top 10 percent of scores rose while the bottom 10 percent fell. Educational inequality is keeping pace with economic inequality.
I believe high stakes testing, which its supporters said would improve education for low performing students, has contributed to their lowered scores. In classes struggling to bring more students into the passing range on state tests, teachers fall into a cycle of drill-pretest, drill-pretest, emphasizing low level reading and computation skills to try and add a few points to the scores of students just below the passing line. The strategy may help at the state level, but it could also be harming those students' scores on the NAEP. It's likely the focused training for the state tests doesn't translate directly to the questions on the NAEP.
Meanwhile, in classes with high achieving students, teachers don't need to spend a lot of time on test prep since their students are likely to pass without much help. Teachers can spend more time on higher level activities like problem solving and analysis. That emphasis likely boosts their NAEP scores, at the same time it increases the quality of their education.
Trump's education secretary Betsy DeVos looked at the 2019 NAEP test results and said they are "frankly, devastating." Then she pulled a Marie Antoinette and declared, "Let them eat choice."
OK, she didn't say that exactly. What Betsy DeVos, who has
four airplanes, two helicopters, ten boats (including a 164 footer), a gift buyer, a toy repairer and a net worth of $5.1 billion, said is, we cannot "simply throw more money at the problem." Instead we should help students "escape failing schools."
DeVos is perfectly fine with throwing money at students' means of escape. She wants to create a national tax credit program for private school scholarships (like Arizona's Empowerment Scholarship Accounts) and plow more money into charter schools. In her estimation, enriching the education choice sector makes sense. Improving existing public schools isn't worth the effort.
An I-Know-A-Little-About-History Note:
Yeah, I know Marie Antoinette didn't say, "Let them eat cake," but the historical analogy was too tempting to resist.