NAEP Reveals Sluggish Math and Reading Gains

by Reihan Salam

According to Paul E. Peterson, director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School, new data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress on the math and reading performances of K-12 students reveal a disturbing pattern:

During the Clinton-Bush era (1999 to 2008), white 9-year-olds gained 11 points in math, African-American student performance rose by 13 points and Hispanic student performance leaped by 21 points. In reading, the gains by white 9-year-olds went up seven points, black performance jumped by 18 points and Hispanic student achievement climbed 14 points.

Those remarkable gains came to an end after the Obama administration took charge. Between 2008-12, gains by African-Americans at age 9 were just two points in each subject, while Hispanics gained one point in reading and nothing in math. Whites gained one point in reading and two points in math.

Recognizing that it might be unfair to compare a nine-year period to a four-year period, Peterson offers an assessment of the relative rate of progress over both periods:

For the first nine years, the average gains were six points annually for African-Americans, five points for Hispanics and three points for whites. Over that stretch, the test-score gap closed by two to three points each year, on average. While minority students did not attain the proficiency No Child Left Behind expected, the record shows steady positive momentum.

After Mr. Obama dismantled No Child, that motion came to a virtual halt and the black-white gap widened slightly. Annual gains have been limited to one-and-a-half points for blacks and to three points for Hispanic students. Whites gained two points annually, slightly (though not significantly) better than those registered by African-Americans. In other words, gains under the Obama administration by all students range between minimal and nonexistent, and the black-white gap on test scores threatens to widen after having narrowed steadily over the previous nine years.

It is important to keep in mind that the post-crisis era has seen persistent high unemployment, which has had a disproportionately large impact on black Americans and Latinos. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that sluggish growth and high unemployment might contribute to disappointing educational outcomes. But I am sympathetic to Peterson’s larger argument, which is that the Obama administration’s efforts to weaken the testing and accountability provisions of No Child Left Behind might have had deleterious consequences:

After winning the presidency, Mr. Obama halted enforcement of most of No Child’s key provisions and offered waivers to states that signed up for more lenient rules devised by the Education Department. So far, waivers have been granted to 40 states. The latest bill promoted by the Senate education committee calls for testing but allows states to let students submit “portfolios” or “projects” in lieu of the standardized tests required by the original law.

These disappointing numbers ought to encourage Republican lawmakers to redouble their efforts on behalf of the Student Success Act, and to encourage Republicans at the state and local level to press for more ambitious K-12 reforms. In an ideal world, Republicans running in 2014 would make K-12 reform a centerpiece of their campaigns. But for now, at least, that seems unlikely to happen. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.