Education leaders who saw increases in their state’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) gathered in Washington, DC, Tuesday to discuss what they’ve done to increase performance, while other experts and advocates responded to national results showing stagnant scores in reading and math at 4th and 8th grade.
“We can and we must do better for America’s students,” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in a press statement. “Our nation’s reading and math scores continue to stagnate. More alarmingly, the gap between the highest and lowest performing students is widening, despite billions in federal funding designated specifically to help close it.”
DeVos highlighted the results from Florida, which saw increases over 2015 results in three areas — math at both grade levels and in reading at 8th grade. At a morning “NAEP Day” event where Peggy Carr, associate commissioner of assessment for the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), released the scores, Florida Department of Education Commissioner Pam Stewart talked about how adopting “rigorous” standards and focusing on students performing at the 25th percentile as part of the state’s A-F graded accountability system has contributed to the state’s gains.
In California, there was an overall increase of four points in 8th-grade reading. “What we’ve seen is slow and steady growth,” said Glen Price, chief deputy superintendent for the California Department of Education. “We’re looking forward to diving into those results. We use them as a flashlight. We use them to inform work at every level.”
Price talked about the state’s Local Control Funding Formula, which has increased spending on subgroups such as English learners and students in foster care.
The morning panel also included Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow and Tom Brady, who leads the U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity, one of only two systems to see gains in 8th-grade math.
Some questions from the attendees, however, focused on results showing that low-performing students are struggling even more than they were in 2015 and that racial gaps in achievement are widening in some states. Carr noted that even though white students in the District of Columbia are still among the highest scoring in the nation, the gap between white and black students actually narrowed because the performance of white students declined.
One attendee questioned whether the new digitally based format contributed to the declining performance in students at the lowest percentiles. In fact, researchers at the Institute for Education Policy at Johns Hopkins University on Tuesday released a statement suggesting that students in states without computer-based state assessments performed worse than those who have already had experiences with online testing.
But Carr stressed that NCES controlled for any differences between the paper and online tests, that the scores “are true results of the performance” of U.S. students and that the trend over time is based on paper-and-pencil testing, not the digital results.
She also highlighted the benefits of using the digital format, which she says will be able to tell educators more about how students are approaching test questions. “You’re going to be able to have greater insight into students’ processing and arrival at those answers,” she said.
'The key to comprehension'
A second panel focused on students’ reading performance, especially the lack of growth at 4th grade. The NAEP results showed a small, but statistically significant increase in reading at the 8th-grade level. The discussion focused on the importance of developing students' content knowledge so they can understand and relate to what they are reading.
"The key to comprehension is what kids know about the topic of the text," said Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia.
Ian Rowe, the CEO of Public Prep, a network of single-sex charter schools in New York City, mentioned, for example, a change in state policy in New York that resulted in less emphasis in the curriculum on social studies and more time spent on English language arts (ELA) — a shift that hinders students' general knowledge of the world, he said.
Susan Pimentel, a lead writer of the Common Core ELA standards, a founding partner at Student Achievement Partners, and the moderator of the session, stressed that while it's still common practice for teachers to give struggling readers easier texts, grade-level texts are what will build students' vocabulary and knowledge so they can be better readers.
"Those kids never get a chance to catch up," added panelist Timothy Shanahan, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago and one of the authors of the ELA standards. "They never get a chance to get rich content."
Rowe added that students' home environment also influences their growth as readers. "Family structure matters, and it matters a lot," he said
'One data point'
Other comments throughout the morning also referenced the role that out-of-school factors play in student performance. Price, from California, thanked those who advocated for maintaining federal funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program in the 2018-19 budget, and he said California also spends an additional $500 million on after-school programs under Proposition 49, the Before and After School Programs Act. The challenge, he added, is better connecting after-school programs to learning during the school day.
Other experts and advocates released statements blaming the nation's lack of progress on education policies that emphasize standardized testing and accountability. "We’ve managed to drive meaningful learning out of our classrooms, bore our students, and demoralize our teachers, and to what end? Stalled progress towards a meaningless goal,” said Ted Dintersmith, author of the newly released "What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers Across America."
And the National Center for Fair and Open Testing released a statement saying that progress in achievement has leveled off "during the era that began with promotion of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ federal law."
Finally, Chris Minnich, former executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers and now CEO of NWEA, a nonprofit assessment organization, provided a reminder that NAEP is only one measure of how well students are learning.
“We’ve come to anticipate NAEP results as an indicator of student academic achievement, but we shouldn’t base our perceptions of education in America, or in individual states or cities, so heavily on this one data point," he said in a statement. "The concerns I hear from education leaders center on making sure we use multiple measures of student learning to inform our opinions on how our schools, districts, and states are doing."