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NAEP Scores Drop and “Experts” Overlook the REAL Reason

October 28, 2015

The NYTimes Mokoto Rich’s report on the decline in mathematics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress is full of explanations for the drop, but all of the explanations miss the primary factor. Here are the expert’s explanations, in the sequence they appear in the article, and my commentary on each in bold red

…it could be related to changes ushered in by the Common Core standards, which have been adopted by more than 40 states. For example, some of the fourth-grade math questions on data analysis, statistics and geometry are not part of that grade’s guidelines under the Common Core and so might not have been covered in class. The largest score drops on the fourth-grade math exams were on questions related to those topics.

This is highly implausible since many states had not rolled out these standards

…stagnating performance could also reflect the demographic changes sweeping America’s schools and the persistent achievement gap between white students and minorities, as well as between students from poor families and their more affluent peers

This is undoubtedly an underlying factor, particularly the divide between affluent and poverty-stricken schools. But this is not the primary factor.

…with students taking so many other standardized tests, some educators said those who took the national exams, which were administered from January to March, may simply have had test fatigue.

This is implausible. The NAEP is only administered to a small group of students within a district and when it was administered in districts I led it was very low key. 

Protests about testing as well as decisions by some parents to opt their students out of testing could have influenced some students who took the national exams.

This completely bogus idea was presented by the Council of Chief School Officers, who are clearly grasping for straws. In order for this to be the case large numbers of parents of high achieving students would need to pull their child from school on the days when NAEP was administered… and unlike the high stakes tests given by States the NAEP has a wide window and is not highlighted in the minds of parents and children. 

Of all the explanations, the AFT President came closest to nailing the real problem:

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, linked the drop in test scores to recent educational policies as well as the economic downturn and its aftermath. “Of course we are disappointed” with the scores, she said. “But they should give pause to anyone who still wishes to double down on austerity and make competition, scapegoating teachers, closing rather than fixing schools, driving fear, and testing and sanctioning the dominant education strategies.”

The test-and-punish model implicit in NCLB and exacerbated by RTTT combined with austerity measures imposed on public schools is a close second to the real factor… which is how the focus of teachers’ energy changed when testing became the predominant metric for school success and teacher success.

A quick primer on test construction is needed to see why the teacher’s focus changed. NAEP is a norm-referenced examination, scored by determining the average (mean) test scores. The “high stakes tests” introduced by NCLB are criterion referenced tests whose results are based on the percent of students who score higher than a proficient level that is determined by a (arguably subjective) cut score. NCLB moved toward criterion referenced tests because on a norm referenced test the scores of high achieving students can offset the lower scores attained by struggling students, causing the lower scoring students to be “left behind”.

When NCLB’s criterion referenced testing was introduced it was clear what the consequence would be: teachers would focus most of their time and energy on students whose scores were just below the proficient level the prior year. While those children had been “left behind” when mean scores were the basis for determining if a school was succeeding… the focus on that group of students resulted in another group being “left behind” or, more accurately, “held back”: those in the top end of the achievement level. And when the higher achieving students were under-served, NAEPs mean scores were suppressed.

The solution? I remain convinced that if children were allowed to advance in reading and mathematics at their own pace that norm-referenced scores based on age cohorts would rise and, over time, more students would achieve the benchmarks set for high school graduation. As stated repeatedly in this blog, we have the technology available that can make this happen, we have the human resources in our schools that can make this happen, all we need to do is abandon our idea that students progress uniformly through their schooling based on their age, an idea we hold onto despite decades of evidence that it is absolutely wrong.


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