When You Set Lousy Goals in Education, You Get Lousy Results

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2018/07/09/when-you-set-lousy-goals-in-education-you-get-lousy-results/

Since the disappointing results of the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress tests were made public on April 10, it has been puzzling that no one at the National Assessment Governing Board, including its chairman (former Governor John Engler of Michigan), has suggested that Common Core-aligned standards and tests might be negative influences on the nation’s public schools. Many readers might ask why we should hear anything from the board that oversees the NAEP test about Common Core’s possible influence on student scores. It’s because the National Assessment Governing Board is supposed to help Congress to understand what is or is not happening in our public schools. But today it doesn’t seem to be playing as strong a role as it could, and it’s not clear why, given the results of the 2017 NAEP tests.

Congress created it in 1988 as an independent, non-partisan board to set policy for the NAEP tests, also known as The Nation’s Report Card. Made up of educators, policymakers, parents, business representatives, and others, all of whose appointments must be approved by the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, the National Assessment Governing Board determines the content, frameworks, and achievement levels for NAEP assessments. By law it is supposed to make the test results more meaningful and relevant to the public.

What does the board tell Congress, the secretary of education, and the public at large? At present, it directly offers short reports on NAEP results and trends. See, for example, here. But it can go beyond these reports to call attention to significant problems. For example, as the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute commented in an April 10 blog article in Flypaper:

As feared … national trends are mostly flat. Coming on the heels of some modest declines in 2015, the 2017 scores amount to more bleak news. It’s now been almost a decade since we’ve seen strong growth in either reading or math, with the slight exception of eighth grade reading. There’s no way to sugarcoat these scores; they are extremely disappointing. … These trends hold up when looking at racial subgroups, too, so we can’t blame the changing demographics of the student population. The scores of our lowest-performing students have declined across the board … it does appear that some of the states with the lowest performing and most disadvantaged students saw the biggest declines in their fourth-grade scores, perhaps because these kids struggled with the tablet-based test. …

While Michael Petrilli suggested that difficulties with computer-based tests may have been a factor in the decline in low-achievers’ scores, it is difficult to find the board’s own judgment on the matter or an explanation by the National Center for Statistics in Education (the federal agency the board uses to develop NAEP tests) that computer-based testing did not cause the decline. According to a reporter for Chalkbeat in a blog article posted April 10, the associate commissioner for the National Center for Statistics in Education sent a letter dated April 9 to Louisiana’s state superintendent of education stating:  “the extent to which various states had varying digital penalties was also minimal, inconsistent, and usually not statistically significant…”

Some commentators saw insufficient school funding, not computer-based testing, as the culprit. That, in fact, was the gist of the article by Kirabo Jackson (a professor of human development and social policy) in Education Next on the 2017 NAEP results, dated April 10. While acknowledging that critics of Common Core might view the 2017 NAEP scores as evidence of Common Core’s negative influence on the schools, he took pains to show how the scores might be evidence of a national and state failure to make up for a decline in funds for the public schools. Jackson noted at the beginning of his article that researchers had found a decline in 2015 in all states, whether or not they had adopted Common Core’s standards.  

Given the controversies about Common Core-related federal and state education policies in the past eight years or so, the National Assessment Governing Board could directly tell Congress and the U.S. Secretary of Education that it seems to be time for independent experts to explore the influence of the standards and tests that the federal government’s education agency enticed states to adopt in 2010 as part of the Race to the Top grant competition, as well as the standards and tests that the federal education department approved in state plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015.  It could at the very least indicate some of the questions that these trends raise.

But instead of suggesting something common sense would support, we find such meaningless observations on the board’s web site as “We continue to see measurable achievement differences among states.” Tonya Matthews, vice chairman of the Governing Board and the chief executive officer of the Michigan Science Center, also said:  “… these results spark my curiosity. We need to dig into, investigate, and learn from this data.” On the National Assessment Governing Board’s web site on state-level policy and practice, a panelist urged “patience, persistence, and humility.”  What action could the U.S. Secretary of Education or Congress take with that kind of advice?  

Why would such a recommendation from the board calling for the U.S. Department of Education and others to explore possible connections between current Common Core-aligned state standards and tests and resulting NAEP scores be reasonable to expect? Not only are NAEP scores not increasing, overall, but the gaps between higher achievers and lower achievers are increasing in some states. At the least, the board that oversees the Nation’s Report Card should be raising questions about what is happening in Title I classrooms, where low-income students are struggling even more than they used to struggle.

But the National Assessment Governing Board is not raising questions about current standards, tests, and practices in the schools.  Instead, a major goal of NAEP assessments today seems to be to tell Congress and the public at large whether the “gaps” in the academic performance of a range of groups have narrowed and by how much. Indeed, the ordinary citizen might well conclude that the closing of “gaps” seems to be the board’s only goal, because that is how NAEP results are highlighted, in national education journals such as Education Next and in overviews of the Nation’s Report Card in mathematics and reading. One cannot find any members of the board that oversees the tests pointing to the national implications of the decline in average scores on the tests. In fact, only one blog article (posted in late April 2018) can be found raising questions about Common Core’s influence.

How did “gap-closing” — the stated purpose for the 2015 re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 known as the Every Student Succeeds Act — between “whites” and other groups get to be a national goal, and what exactly is meant by it? Many thought a broad effort to increase all students’ scores was our national goal when states were told in 2001 that they had to participate every two years in NAEP assessments to qualify for Title I funds under the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act known as No Child Left Behind. That was a reasonable assumption to make since one of the original purposes of original federal funding of education (first authorized in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty”) was to “strengthen public education.”

And why do NAEP’s report cards compare low achieving groups to “whites”? Instead, if Congress is really interested in “gap-closing,” why not compare all lower-achieving groups to the highest-achieving student group (Pacific Islanders/Asians)? Perhaps many members of the board that oversees the test have another goal in mind?

Perhaps Congress ought to insist that the board that governs our Nation’s Report Card set goals that better reflect the views of the parents of students in our schools, instead of catering to those with blinkers on about what is happening in them.


Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read her past columns here.