It never fails.

Results from a standardized test deemed important to the future of education are released — and new cries ring out that “the sky is falling” in U.S. education. We heard some of that with the Wednesday release of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores, which showed only two jurisdictions — the District and Mississippi — experienced big boosts in student scores.

There went Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who said in a speech (see full text below), “The numbers are reason for deep concern. This country has a student achievement crisis.”

And there went Jeanne Allen, founder and chief executive of the nonprofit Center for Education Reform, who also viewed the results as definitive proof of failure. She said in a statement: “The NAEP proficiency scores announced today should be shocking to every family, employer, and policymaker. They demonstrate that the vast majority of our nation’s education systems are simply failing to meet the very basic educational needs of American students, threatening their dreams for the future.”

NAEP, administered by an agency of the Education Department, is a set of exams sometimes referred to as “the nation’s report card” or the “gold standard” in student assessment. It is seen as the most consistent nationally representative measure of student achievement since the 1990s and is said to be able to assess what students “know and can do.”

U.S. students in the fourth and eighth grades — said to be randomly chosen at selected schools — take NAEP every two years, and high school students do so less frequently. Math and reading tests are given every other year, while assessments in science, writing, the arts, civics, economics, geography, technology and engineering literacy, and U.S. history are administered less frequently.

NAEP results are highly anticipated in the education world and are often seen as a benchmark for progress in school systems — even though the results are often misinterpreted, as DeVos did in a speech Wednesday about the scores.

She said: “Our nation’s report card shows that two-thirds of American students can’t read at grade level. Two out of three!”

If she were being graded in score interpretation, she would flunk. NAEP doesn’t assess grade-level reading. It has its own markers of progress: NAEP Basic, NAEP Proficient and NAEP Advanced. The new results show that two-thirds of students who took the 2019 reading test did not read at the proficient level, while 35 percent of fourth-graders were “proficient” in reading in 2019, down from 37 percent two years earlier. Thirty-four percent of eighth-graders were proficient in reading in 2019, down from 36 percent in 2017.

Many people, including DeVos (and whoever wrote her speech), view the NAEP proficiency level as meaning grade level. It doesn’t. It says it doesn’t on the Education Department’s NAEP Web pages:

Students performing at or above the Proficient level on NAEP assessments demonstrate solid academic performance and competency over challenging subject matter. It should be noted that the NAEP Proficient achievement level does not represent grade level proficiency as determined by other assessment standards (e.g., state or district assessments).

What do basic, proficient and advanced actually mean? There aren’t especially detailed explanations on the NAEP website.

Besides, if the sky were to fall because of NAEP scores, it would have happened years ago: Overall progress for fourth- and eighth-graders has stayed essentially the same for at least the past decade and for far longer for older students. This comes from a 2011 post on this blog:

[NAEP] Proficiency remains a tough nut to crack for most students, in all subjects, at all grade levels. NAEP routinely reports that only one third of American students are proficient or better, no matter the subject, the age of the students, or their grade level. But no one should be surprised.
NAEP’s benchmarks, including the proficiency standard, evolved out of a process only marginally better than throwing darts at the wall.
That’s a troubling conclusion to reach in light of the expenditure of more than a billion dollars on NAEP over 40-odd years by the U.S. Department of Education and its predecessors. For all that money, one would expect that NAEP could defend its benchmarks of Basic, Proficient, and Advanced by pointing to rock-solid studies of the validity of its benchmarks and the science underlying them. But it can’t.

The NAEP website actually says achievement levels should be seen as still being part of a “trial”:

Setting of NAEP Achievement Levels
NAEP achievement levels are set by the National Assessment Governing Board based on the collective judgments of a broadly representative panel of teachers, education specialists, and members of the general public. The authorizing legislation for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) requires that the NAEP achievement levels be used on a trial basis until the Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) determines that the achievement levels are reasonable, valid, and informative to the public (20 USC § 9622(e)(2)(C)). The NCES Commissioner’s determination is to be based on a congressionally mandated, rigorous, and independent evaluation. The latest evaluation of the NAEP achievement levels was conducted by a committee convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in 2016. The evaluation concluded that further evidence should be gathered to determine whether the NAEP achievement levels are reasonable, valid, and informative. Accordingly, the NCES commissioner determined that the trial status of the NAEP achievement levels should be maintained at this time.

Criticism in years past about NAEP proficiency levels — including from the National Academy of Education and the National Academy of Sciences — has largely been ignored by the NAEP governing board.

DeVos, as she is wont to do, said in her speech that the stagnant scores were a result of America’s system of public schools. “For more than three decades, I — and many others — have said that America’s antiquated approach to education fails too many kids.”

She also said money doesn’t really matter in education: “It’s way past time we dispense with the idea that more money for school buildings buys better achievement for school students. Doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result, is as we all know Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity.”

(Actually, we all don’t know that because that wasn’t Einstein’s definition of insanity, according to a book titled “Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations.” And “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein,” an authoritative compilation of Einstein’s sayings, said the quote has been wrongly attributed to him.)

It is true that too many public schools in America fail kids in terrible ways, but DeVos’s reference to “antiquated” is rhetoric she has used repeatedly to bash publicly funded school districts and push alternatives, including charter schools (which are publicly funded but privately operated) and voucher/voucher-like programs that use public money for private and religious school tuition.

As for her contention that money doesn’t really matter, tell that to teachers who have to buy their own pencils and paper for class, and to students who are asked to learn in buildings without heat or working toilets. As Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee on education, said in a statement:

Secretary DeVos also claims that additional funding for our public schools does not improve outcomes. That claim has no basis in reality. A 2018 review of research on education spending and student outcomes by a Northwestern University economist found statistically significant positive results for students in 12 out of 13 studies. Since then, similar studies in Texas, Wisconsin, California, and other states have also found that increases in school funding improve student outcomes.

In her speech, DeVos praised Florida, which was not a standout in the 2019 NAEP. But it is where she owns a home; where her family owns a professional basketball team; and where her ally, Jeb Bush, pioneered choice policies when he was governor from 1999 to 2007.

DeVos, who has made clear that expanding alternatives to public school districts is her priority, said Wednesday that Florida gets good test scores because it has “education freedom,” her term for school choice.

“Public charter schools, tax-credit scholarship programs, education savings accounts, vouchers,” she said. “Students in Florida have more mechanisms for education freedom than anywhere else in the country. More keys to unlock opportunities. More ways to learn and grow.”

Interestingly, she didn’t say much about the District, which was a winner in the 2019 NAEP, with major boosts coming from schools in the city’s traditional public school district. Results from the city’s large charter sector — which educates nearly half of the city’s students — were largely stagnant from 2017.

That, apparently, didn’t align with DeVos’s narrative.

It is important to point out that the NAEP website says clearly that nobody should try to imply causal relationships between the scores and anything else.

Users are cautioned against interpreting NAEP results as implying causal relations. Inferences related to student group performance or to the effectiveness of public and nonpublic schools, for example, should take into consideration the many socioeconomic and educational factors that may also have an impact on performance.
The NAEP reading scale makes it possible to examine relationships between students’ performance and various background factors measured by NAEP. However, a relationship that exists between achievement and another variable does not reveal its underlying cause, which may be influenced by a number of other variables. Similarly, the assessments do not reflect the influence of unmeasured variables. The results are most useful when they are considered in combination with other knowledge about the student population and the educational system, such as trends in instruction, changes in the school-age population, and societal demands and expectations.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union, issued a statement about NAEP scores that said the results were “not surprising”:

Our students are still bearing the brunt of two decades of austerity, competition and test-based fixation that have failed to prioritize the needs of students, including the 90 percent of kids who attend public schools. … Almost half of America’s kids have trauma, and they’re going to school in classrooms without nurses and counselors. For years, we’ve been advocating that children need comprehensive social and emotional supports so they’re able to engage in meaningful learning in safe and welcoming environments. It’s vital to meet kids where they are and to do what evidence shows works for improving student well-being and achievement.

It’s hard to argue with any of that: The education overhaul of the past few decades exacerbated long-standing problems in America’s schools — some schools are terrific, others are awful — and students desperately need social and emotional supports.

Whether any of that has to do with the stagnant test scores, however, is unclear. There is no consequence for students who take NAEP. How much do they focus on a test they may care nothing about? Is a single test a valid measure of how much students know and can do?

Yet NAEP will go on, and so will misinterpretations of the results.

Here is DeVos’s speech, as provided by the Education Department:

Thank you, Tonya Matthews, for that kind introduction and for your service as Acting Chair. Thank you to all our National Assessment Governing Board members for maintaining our “national yardstick” of student achievement.
Since 1992 the Nation’s Report Card has provided a comprehensive view of the state of American education. It shows us where our students are, and where they should go. It gives America’s parents, her teachers, and her leaders a detailed picture of student achievement — or, in all too many cases, a lack thereof.
Today, the Report Card will be opened by moms and dads across America. And it pains me to say: they're not going to like what they see. The numbers are reason for deep concern.
This country has a student achievement crisis.
And this is not new. For more than three decades, I — and many others — have said that America’s antiquated approach to education fails too many kids.
I’ve seen first-hand the frustration of an eighth-grade child as he struggled to read and comprehend a third-grade book. I share in the anger of a mom who can’t afford a move to the “better" school district for her daughter who can’t do math.
But don't blame them.
Blame the “experts” who assure us each year that American education is “doing OK.” That our schools are “good enough.”
“If you just look at these numbers hard enough,” they say, “you’ll see some improvement in some subject for some students somewhere.”
That might be true, but they’ve missed the forest for the trees.
Our Nation’s Report Card shows that two thirds of American students can’t read at grade level. Two out of three!
And only Mississippi and D.C. improved this year.
Today’s Report Card is essentially the same as the last one, and the one before that, and the one before that. In fact, student achievement hasn’t changed much since 1992.
Flat lines. Barely any change. And I know what some will say. “Wait! Some improvement in math in the 1990s.” Well, that was a quarter century ago.
Even today, some have said we have “dramatically narrowed the [achievement] gap.” That is flat out not true.
In reality, scores have not improved enough. Achievement has not improved enough. And our children continue to fall further and further behind their international peers.
In fact, too many American students who were already low-achieving are worse off today. While our best-performing students have plateaued, those near the bottom—our most vulnerable—have fallen even further behind.
34 percent of our Nation’s fourth graders are what the Report Card calls “below basic“ readers. Appallingly, nearly half of fourth graders who qualify for free and reduced lunch are “below basic.” But let’s be honest about what “below basic” really is: they can’t read. And their scores are getting worse.
Altogether, fourth grade reading declined in 17 states. And eighth grade reading declined in 31 states.
If we look closer into our Nation's cities, we see an even more disturbing picture. America's education "system" is failing entire communities.
Recently, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania had to take control of Harrisburg's schools for the third time because 90 percent of the students in the city weren't proficient in any core subject. 90 percent! And yet, the superintendent who oversaw this widespread failure received a raise and a five-thousand-dollar bonus.
A similar story unfolded in Providence, Rhode Island, where schools were also recently taken over by state government. A new assessment there revealed that 80 percent of students weren't proficient in reading and language arts.
A devastating report from Johns Hopkins uncovered rampant problems with student discipline, bad teachers, and with a hapless, bloated bureaucracy. Now, thanks to a state commissioner's order, parents and students will be intimately involved in developing a new plan for Providence. We hope they will be bold in doing what's right for students.
And then there's Detroit.
The city's academic struggles are infamous. Faced with the Motor City's bankruptcy and consistently poor student achievement, the state government has been obliged to intervene and take control not once, but twice.
Still today, more than 90 percent of Detroit's community schools' eighth graders cannot read at grade level.
Things have gotten so bad there that students and families are suing for a right to read.
American students should not have to sue their way to literacy—to learning.
There is no excuse for any of this. America’s educators know what it takes to teach a student to read. They know students need the basics—phonics. They just aren’t given the freedom to teach it.
Children suffer as a result. And somehow, they are expected to go on grade to grade without the most essential skill.
Now, these are just some of the numbers. But behind the statistics are real consequences for real people.
Behind every data point is a young man or a young woman with dreams. With aspirations and abilities. With potential and purpose.
Think about the mom or dad who cannot read, and so does not read to their own children at bedtime. Think about what that portends for their lifelong learning journeys. Think about what it means if they are passed along, grade to grade, not reading as they should.
Think about the father whose son, a recent high school graduate, was honored in the local newspaper. Dad's pride turning to disappointment after he discovered his son couldn't read or comprehend the article. So, dad marches over to the high school principal's office with his son and newspaper in tow, and asks his son to read the article to the principal. He, of course, can't. Then the father pointedly asks the principal how he could've graduated his son—or anyone—who can't read.
I also think of my recent visit to an Indianapolis prison. The warden told me that the biggest problem there is not violence or discipline. It's illiteracy.
These are very real consequences that have followed year after year of more spending on more of the same.
Over the past 30 years, per pupil spending has skyrocketed. A massive increase in spending to buy flatlined achievement. It just doesn't add up.
So, where does the money go? Here's the dirty little secret: it's to highly paid administrators, coordinators, consultants, assistant principals, assistant superintendents—layers and layers and layers of bureaucracy.
Since 1950, the growth in non-instructional school staff has increased seven times faster than student enrollment growth. If staff levels matched student enrollment, public schools across the country could have saved—or reinvested—around 35 billion additional dollars every year. Imagine what that could've meant in teacher compensation.
Worse still, at the Federal level alone, taxpayers have spent more than 1 trillion dollars trying to "fix" K-12 education.
Well, researchers at Harvard and Stanford recently studied the past half century of that attempt. They found that Federal "interventions thus far have been unable to dent" the achievement gap. More than 1 trillion dollars did nothing to shrink the gulf between high-achieving students and low-achieving ones.
It's way past time we dispense with the idea that more money for school buildings buys better achievement for school students. Doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result, is as we all know Albert Einstein's definition of insanity.
No amount of spending can bring about good results from bad policy.
Some states have taken hard looks at what they've been doing. And some have decided to do something different.
Take Mississippi. Students there are among the most improved in the Nation today. Fourth graders scored the highest ever in the state's history. And Mississippi was one of only two jurisdictions that actually improved since the last Nation's Report Card.
But that's not because taxpayers spent more on education. It's because Mississippi put a singular focus on student achievement, especially when it comes to literacy.
The idea was simple: students who can't read, can't learn. And if a student can't read by third grade, a student won't learn. So now, all Mississippi's third graders must demonstrate that they can at least read at grade level before advancing to fourth grade.
This year, we're beginning to see the results of that policy. Students in Mississippi are better readers than they were on the last Report Card, and on the one before that. The same is true for math.
Now, let's consider Florida.
Students there outperform nearly every other state, but the state's story wasn't always full of sunshine. Many there will remember when students only needed a 1.5 GPA to graduate high school. That was borne out in the state's ranking on the Nation's Report Card. Florida consistently ranked among the lowest achieving states.
Like everywhere else in the country, Florida's families were fed up with failure. Sick of the status quo. And they demanded better.
Doing better began with introducing education freedom. Public charter schools, tax-credit scholarship programs, education savings accounts, vouchers. Students in Florida have more mechanisms for education freedom than anywhere else in the country. More keys to unlock opportunities. More ways to learn and grow.
Importantly, doing better also meant improved achievement in traditional public schools. Transparency for parents, accountability for schools, flexibility for school leaders, respect for teachers with rewards for great ones, and a strong focus on literacy for all students.
And today, Florida's students are doing better. The Sunshine State went from the bottom 10 to the top 10 by nearly every measure. Today, dollars invested versus Report Card results, taxpayers in Florida get the best return on investment.
More states and more communities could learn from Florida and Mississippi. More must face their failures—and they bear repeating: two out of three students aren't where they need to be. More states and more communities need to do something different. More states must do what's right for kids.
And they could if Washington would get out of the way.
And by law, it should. The U.S. Department of Education is 40 years old this year. When Congress created the Department, it vowed the move would "not increase the authority of the Federal Government over education [nor] diminish the responsibility for education which is reserved to the States."
But "Big ED" took over.
More rules and more regulations. More staff and more standards. More spending and more strings. But, as the numbers in today's Report Card reaffirm, students and teachers have gained precious little as a result.
So, let's have a serious conversation about the failure and future of the federal role in education.
Government has never made anything better or cheaper, more effective or more efficient. And nowhere is that more true than in education. President Trump said that "There's no failed policy more in need of urgent change than our government-run education monopoly." He is so right!
It's time to try something new. We need to pivot to a policy of freedom. Put improving student achievement in this country above all else—above any system, any mechanism, any building, and importantly, above politics.
This philosophy is at the heart of the bipartisan K-12 law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.
This law represents an important shift in America's approach to education policy. Unlike other education laws from administrations on both sides of the aisle, the successful passage of ESSA indicated that legislators in this town realized federal overreach in education had failed to achieve well-intentioned goals.
Instead, the law affords states and communities more flexibility to address local challenges. For instance, states are required to test students annually. But ESSA invites each state to determine their standards and develop innovative assessments that focus on achievement and excellence.
States can also set aside a certain percentage of federal taxpayer funding to use in new and creative ways. There's a student-centered funding pilot program for dollars to support students—not buildings. I like to picture kids with backpacks representing funding for their education following them wherever they go to learn.
States should embrace the freedom in ESSA and look for ways to extend that freedom to empower teachers, parents, and students themselves.
And why not? Why not let decisions be made in states and in local districts? Why not make parents the primary decision makers when it comes to their child's education? Why not let every dollar flow to whomever is best able to help students read, write, do math—to learn!
That is, after all, what our country is all about. The states, our "laboratories of democracy," are empowered to address particular problems and possibilities of their particular people. That's by design.
As James Madison—the "Father of our Constitution"—explained, "The powers delegated…to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite."
Education is one of those powers—one of those responsibilities—that was meant to be left to the states. To communities and to families.
If we rediscover that Founding principle, if we embrace education freedom, American students can achieve, American students can compete, American students will lead, and America will win.