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Earlier this year, the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for fourth- and eighth-graders’ scores were released, and they were largely the same as the 2015 results — although not as high as they were in 2013.

Disparities among student groups grew, with scores for the bottom 25 percent of students dropping slightly in all but eighth-grade reading and scores for the top quartile rising slightly in eighth-grade reading and math.

NAEP is referred to as “the nation’s report card” or the “gold standard” in student assessment, because it is seen as the most consistent, nationally representative measure of U.S. student achievement since the 1990s and because it is supposed to be able to assess what students “know and can do.”

It is administered every two years to groups of U.S. students in the fourth and eighth grades (with test-takers said to be randomly chosen within selected schools) and less frequently to high school students. Math and reading tests are given every two years. Tests in science, writing, the arts, civics, economics, geography, technology and engineering literacy, and U.S. history are given less often.

NAEP results are often seen in the education world as a benchmark for progress in school systems — although the results are often misinterpreted. When students score at the “proficient” level on NAEP, many take that to mean they are “proficient” at their grade level, but that isn’t accurate.

Every time NAEP scores are released, school reformers write about them, trying to explain why the scores went up or down. In the following post, public-school advocate Carol Burris looks at what some reformers have said about NAEP scores in the past, and she compares them to what they said this year. Why does it matter what they say? Because these writers have influence in the national education reform debate.

Burris, a former award-winning New York high school principal, is executive director of the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit education group advocating for traditional public schools. She was named the 2010 Educator of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York State, and in 2013, the National Association of Secondary School Principals named her the New York State High School Principal of the Year. Burris has been chronicling problems with modern school reform and school choice for years on this blog.

By Carol Burris

It is impossible to say with certainty why scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress dropped and stalled. Since 1990, there had been steady and significant growth in math scores, along with small progress in reading. Reformers promised that the higher standards of the Common Core State Standards and accountability reforms would not only build on that progress, but result in higher achievement for all.

Then NAEP scores dropped in 2015 with no recovery in 2017, which put reformers — who have supported high-stakes standardized testing, school choice and other controversial reforms — in an awfully uncomfortable position. After using test scores as the hammer with which to pummel public schools, what does one say when your disruptive ideas result not only in the disruption of “the system” but also in the disruption of national achievement growth?

Here’s how some professional school reformers responded to the release earlier this year of the 2017 NAEP scores, and what they had said in the past.

Michael Petrilli is the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank. He writes for the Fordham blog called Flypaper.

During the past decade, Petrilli has been a prominent cheerleader for the Common Core and tougher Common Core-aligned tests. In 2013, he went to Indiana to tell the state’s Republican legislators to keep faith with the Common Core. This is what he said:

Moving to the Common Core gives you the opportunity to combine strong standards with much higher expectations for passing state tests. This pressure — the kind that we’ve seen in states like Massachusetts that have made big gains on the NAEP — can go a long way.

Pretty clear — the Common Core plus accountability will make NAEP scores go up.

When it comes to promises, however, accountability does not exist. Just before the release of scores in 2015, Petrilli dismissed the notion that the cause of any decreases might be the reforms he promoted. Petrilli blamed the recession of 2008 instead.

In fact, the last time we saw national declines in NAEP scores was in the aftermath of the 1990 recession. That was particularly the case for reading. It makes sense — when families are hurting financially, it’s harder for students to focus on learning.

An interesting response, though however, his claim is not true. Fourth-grade NAEP reading scores had a slight drop in 1990 but immediately rebounded in 1992. Eighth and twelfth-grade reading scores never dropped. And math scores increased at all levels beginning 1990 and continued to steadily climb with the first drop ever occurring in 2015.

Nevertheless, when 2017 rolled around, Petrilli threw the very same argument onto his Flypaper to see if it would stick.

Among the possibilities that make the most sense to me: the Great Recession, which negatively impacted school spending and also the home lives of a number of children…

According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Research and the Federal Reserve, the recession began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009. The economy has been in recovery for years, so blaming the recession for 2015-17 scores is a specious argument at best. During the Great Recession until 2015, NAEP math scores continued to climb.

It is true, however, that school funding took a hit during the recessions and has remained low since 2008. Part of the blame can be attributed to reformers who have downplayed the role that school spending plays in achievement, while advocating for funding charter schools and vouchers that divert funding from the public school system.

The diversion of tax dollars from public schools to charters and vouchers is no small matter. A recently released report, “The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts,” issued by In the Public Interest provides a detailed analysis of the financial impact of charter schools on three California districts. Scholar Gordon Lafer, who wrote the report, estimated the per pupil loss in funding due to charters in these districts is a whopping $1,000 a child per year.  It’s a clear explanation of how funds are drained and worth reading.

Then there’s Arne Duncan,  managing Partner of the Emerson Collective and U.S. education secretary for seven years under President Barack Obama. Duncan was the prime mover in the Obama administration of school reforms including the expansion of charter schools, the implementation of the Core and the use of student standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. In 2013, when he was education secretary, Duncan gleefully attributed a small uptick in NAEP scores to the Common Core:

While progress on the NAEP continues to vary among the states, all eight states that had implemented the state-crafted Common Core State Standards at the time of the 2013 NAEP assessment showed improvement in at least one of the Reading and/or Mathematics assessments from 2009 to 2013 — and none of the eight states had a decline in scores.

Given the rapid and comprehensive changes that America’s educators are implementing in classrooms across the nation, it is to their credit that we are seeing the strongest performance in the history of the NAEP.

Two years later when scores dropped, he said the decline was due to “an implementation dip.”

Scholar and expert on educational change Michael Fullan first used the term in his seminal work on reform entitled “The New Meaning of Educational Change.Implementation dips occur shortly following the implementation of new policies or programs. When the dip should have occurred, Arne Duncan was attributing improvements in the NAEP scores to the Common Core. By 2015, (three to five years after implementation) improvements would have been expected. That is when scores dropped.

If Duncan had consulted Michael Fullan, he would have realized his Race to the Top reforms were doomed to fail. In the same year that Duncan was claiming victory, Michael Fullan explained why the Common Core standards and teacher evaluations by test scores would “fall of their own weight.” Standards and assessments, he explained, rather than curriculum and instruction were driving the Common Core. Data should be used as a strategy for improvement, he said, not for accountability purposes as they were, and still are, being used.

Just a few weeks before the release of the 2017 scores, Duncan penned an April 1, 2018 opinion piece telling the American public to keep the faith with “reform.” In it, the former political appointee blames politics for a lack of educational progress. (We are grateful that this time white suburban moms were spared the blame. Back in 2013, Duncan told a group of state schools superintendents  that he found it “fascinating” that some of the opposition to the Common Core State Standards has come from “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”)

Now let’s look at Michael Cohen, who is president of the nonprofit reform organization called Achieve. Achieve has received tens of millions of dollars from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support college and career readiness and the Common Core State Standards. Prior to becoming president of Achieve, Cohen was an appointee in the Clinton administration.

In 2015, Cohen reacted to the drop in NAEP scores by blaming the creators of the NAEP tests:

It appears that there is a mismatch between NAEP and all states’ math standards, no matter if they are common standards or not.

This year he tried the same argument. Cohen reacted to the 2017 NAEP scores by advising that we forge ahead with “robust support” and that the NAEP tests be aligned to the new “higher academic standards” of the states.

Cohen’s advice is mystifying. The NAEP tests have never been aligned with state standards. The steepest growth in scores occurred when there were no state standards or “low” standards in the states.

To paraphrase the former governor of Texas, the late Ann Richards said, “Mr. Cohen, that old dog won’t hunt.”

Then there’s Peter Cunnigham, who is executive director of Education Post, a reform website/news agency that has received millions in funding from the Gates foundation. Prior to EdPost, he worked for Duncan when Duncan led the Chicago public school district. He later moved with Duncan to the Obama administration.

Cunningham tells us not to blame any of the reforms he and his team of bloggers espouse.  In 2016, he told us what we need is “more rigor” and higher standards when twelfth-grade NAEP scores came out. On April 20, 2018, like Duncan, Cunningham blamed politics — specifically unions and local boards of education — for the lackluster NAEP scores.

Yet just 10 days later, Education Post attributed the rise of Florida scores to the very same policies that Cunningham tells us not to blame for the drops and stalls in other states.

Speaking of Florida, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently scolded the nation for what she called “stagnant scores” and then used Florida increases as a justification for school choice.

But what about other “school choice” states? In Arizona, the only state that rivals Florida when it comes to extensive, unregulated school choice, fourth-grade grade scores still rank near the bottom of the nation. It is joined at the bottom by other school choice states such as Nevada, South Carolina and Louisiana. And in Indiana, the home of the school choice movement, scores, with the exception of eighth-grade reading, were flat.

Amidst all of the blame shifting, flip flops and contradictory responses, there was one refreshingly honest and frank reaction by reform-friendly researchers, Jay P. Greene and Michael Q. McShane in The Kappan.

… The problem, though, is that policy makers, foundation officials, and pundits have strong incentives to deny that their favored initiatives have gone badly, and they rarely acknowledge and learn from those failures before moving on to the next reform. As a result, they tend to repeat their mistakes and make much less progress than they should.

 Will reformers take the advice of Greene and McShane before inflicting yet one more misguided reform on American students and their teachers? Don’t hold your  breath.

Petrilli closes his reflections on 2017 NAEP scores with the following:

What can we do so that these flat lines turn into upward slopes again, and before it’s too late for our current generation of students?

Churn and unproven schemes thrown at flypaper is the new status quo.