Politics & Policy

A Train Wreck for Reading and Math Scores

(Andrewy Popov/Dreamstime)

On Tuesday, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that the nation’s reading and math scores were down almost across the board on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). This marked a striking shift from a quarter-century of steady increases on the NAEP, which is informally known as “the nation’s report card” and has been given pretty much every other year since 1990. Administered to a sample of fourth- and eighth-grade students in every state, the NAEP has come to serve as the gold standard for gauging the performance of U.S. students.

The 2015 results were dismal. Eighth-grade reading and math scores fell, as did fourth-grade math scores. Fourth-grade reading scores stayed flat — the closest thing to a bright spot one could find. In 22 states, eighth-graders did worse on the math test than they did in 2013; no state saw its score improve. In eighth-grade reading, scores were down in eight states and up in one. Overall, just 36 percent of fourth-graders and 34 percent of eighth-graders were deemed proficient in reading. In math, the figures were 40 percent of fourth-graders and 33 percent of eighth-graders.

Viewed against more than two decades of prior scores, these results can only be described as a train wreck. They were so disturbing mostly because we’ve gotten so used to steady improvement in NAEP scores. Never before had fourth-grade math scores declined. Eighth-grade reading scores hadn’t fallen since 1996. Fourth-grade reading scores haven’t dipped since 2003, or eighth-grade reading since 2005. In other words, the widespread carnage on display this year is wholly unprecedented.

The Obama administration, which has bragged about the efficacy of its federally fueled school-reform agenda, immediately moved to aggressive damage control. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan explained that the declines should in no way raise questions about Obama-promoted education policies such as Common Core or the administration’s Race to the Top program. “Big change never happens overnight,” Duncan said. “I’m confident that over the next decade, if we stay committed to this change, we will see historic improvements.”

Duncan’s insistence that it will take a while for Obama policies to bear fruit would be more compelling if he had not — just last week— already credited Obama policies such as the School Improvement Grant program with boosting the nation’s graduation rate. Or if, two years ago, he hadn’t credited administration policies for 2013’s NAEP gains. At the time, he said, “All eight states that had implemented the state-crafted Common Core State Standards at the time of the 2013 NAEP assessment showed improvement . . . and none of the eight states had a decline in scores.” He added, “Tennessee, D.C., and Hawaii have done some really tough, hard work, and it’s showing some pretty remarkable dividends” on the NAEP results.

It’s not clear what might convince Arne Duncan to rethink his push to federalize school reform. Happy results are vindication, and poor results are just a sign that change is hard.

Just to recap: The Common Core and other Obama policies caused scores to go up in 2013 but bore no responsibility for the decline in 2015. And, if they were in any way responsible, it’s only because change is difficult. (Presumably, change was less difficult in 2013.) And, anyway, graduation rates went up this year, which shows that these reforms work (pay no attention to those declining test scores). 

The truth is that these results can’t easily be blamed on Obama’s policies, Common Core, or anything else. The NAEP tests are a snapshot taken every two years, and their results can be explained by an almost endless array of factors. Some education pundits are even trying to blame the 2008 recession for the results (though it’d be a remarkable recession that managed not to affect test scores in 2011 or 2013, only to crush them in 2015).

And no one really thinks the federal government can or should take credit for changes in student-level test scores across the 50 states. Nonetheless, we know that Duncan and Common Core advocates were eagerly poised to take credit for any increases if the results had been better. While the administration is self-avowedly “data-driven” and convinced that it knows “what works,” it’s not clear what, if anything, might persuade Duncan to rethink his push to federalize school reform or his cheerleading for the Common Core. Happy results are vindication, and poor results are just a sign that change is hard.

The thing is, the Obama administration’s fevered spinning matters less and less. Duncan will be gone in a matter of weeks. Hillary Clinton has already been endorsed by both major teachers’ unions. Public support for the Common Core has plummeted. The Republican field has shown zero attachment to Obama’s education policies. Against that backdrop, fairly or not, these dismal NAEP results could serve as a blow to big parts of Obama-era education reform.

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