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Posted at 01:43 PM ET, 11/01/2011

What the new NAEP test results really tell us

Someone should be printing up a T-shirt about now that says: “My nation spent billions on testing and all I got was a 1-point gain.”

Here’s what the newly released scores for the 2011 administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress show for fourth and eighth graders in reading and math, on a 500-point scale:

— In math, fourth and eighth graders scored on average 1 percentage point higher this year in 2009. Both grades scored more than 20 points higher this year than in 1990 (when the test was first given).

— In reading, fourth-grade scores did not change from two years ago but were four points higher than in 1992, when the reading test was first given. Eighth-graders scored on average 1 point higher this year than two years ago, and 5 points higher than in 1992.

— Asian students, this year for the first time in their own category, had the highest scores of any single group.

— The overall achievement gap between white and black students showed no real change over the last two years and it remains wide. There persists, according to the NAEP scores, a 25-point gap in reading in both tested grades and in math among fourth graders.

— The gap between Hispanic eighth graders and white students in reading and math closed slightly. It went from from 24 points in 2009 to 22 points this year; in 1992, it was 26 points.

— D.C. public schools reported gains in 4th and 8th grade mathematics.

— Some states trumpeted as being models for school reform — reform that involves plenty of tests and punitive action against low-performing schools — didn’t do so well in this administration of NAEP.

Louisiana, for example, may boast that it was one of only three states to increase the number of students who scored proficient, but three times as many of those students are white than black, and there was no significant change in the achievement gap.

New York, where former superintendent Joel Klein helped lead the test-based school reform movement, “was the only state to score lower in math among fourth-graders from 2009 to 2011,” the Associated Press reported.

Since closing the achievement gap was the goal of No Child Left Behind, which went into effect a decade ago under the administration of former president George W. Bush, the NAEP results tell us that it was an abject failure.

Under NCLB, the high-stakes standardized test became supreme in school reform for purposes of evaluating schools and students — and, now, under the Obama administration, teachers as well — and still, the achievement gap remains stubborn. In fact, trend lines show that NAEP gains were bigger before NCLB.

That, of course, is no surprise to those who recognize that all of the money in the world spent on tests and test prep and test-based evaluation systems won’t make a real dent in the gap because they aren’t the cure.

With nearly 22 percent of the nation’s children living in poverty, and with school reformers insisting that the effects of living in poverty can be overcome by schools without actually dealing with those effects — sickness, hunger, no early education, etc. — the gap will remain. It’s not rocket science.

NAEP is often called the nation’s report card because it is the only measure of student achievement given periodically to a sampling of students around the nation. It is also seen as a high-quality test that tells us more about a student’s ability than state standardized tests.

Still, it is important to remember that even NAEP has its critics, some of whom point out that the test cannot measure many of the qualities students must develop to be successful, and others who say that the NAEP definition of “proficiency” is unnaturally high.

In fact, one study conducted by a former acting director of the National Center for Education Statistics showed that most of the countries that participate in the international tests called TIMSS would not do well under NAEP’s definition of proficiency.

It may be time to reconsider just how much stock we put in the NAEP scores.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the NAEP results “reason for concern as much as optimism.”

“While student achievement is up since 2009 in both grades in mathematics and in 8th grade reading, it’s clear that achievement is not accelerating fast enough for our nation’s children to compete in the knowledge economy of the 21st Century. After significant NAEP gains in the 1990s, particularly in mathematics, the 2011 results continue a pattern of modest progress.

“While the national scores are sobering, individual states and districts are leading the way. Between 2009 and 2011, students in the District of Columbia recorded significant gains in 4th and 8th grade mathematics. While this is important progress, student achievement in the District of Columbia is still too low. Like the rest of the nation, the District of Columbia has to invest in reforms that prepare all students for college and careers.”

Unfortunately, the Obama administration is still pressing the kinds of reforms that aren’t going to help this situation.

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By  |  01:43 PM ET, 11/01/2011

 
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