One piece of news you may have missed during the hot summer months is from the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), which oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), aka The Nation’s Report Card.
The bright minds at NAGB had the clever idea to look at trends in student performance over the decade from 2009 to 2019 (they also have new “before and after the pandemic” data coming out soon). increase). America’s better-performing students (here defined as those in the top 10 or 25 percent of the NAEP scale distribution) remained stable or achieved status, while the worst-performing students (lower 10 percent or 25 percent of students) saw their test scores. At least in her fourth grade and her eighth grade, she falls in both reading and math.
Figure 1: Change in Mean and Selected Percentile Scores by Rating: 2009-2019
Source: National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2009-19 Mathematics, Reading and Science
What wasn’t made clear in some of the commentary that followed was that this news wasn’t all bad. We should celebrate the fact that high performers are doing better over time. It’s good for them, good for the country, good for our primary and secondary schools. Yet somehow, in today’s environment, it’s mostly seen as a bad thing because it widens the gap and thereby leads to greater inequality.
Even if we redouble our efforts to boost the low performers, we must reject that view. The more any child learns, the better. Education is not a zero-sum game in which there must be both winners and losers. And we all benefit from high-achieving children learning more to cure cancer, fix climate change, and beat China.
It’s also important to note that inequality is widening in performance, not race or income. In fact, the lower-educated group includes a surprising number of white and middle-class students whose parents include college graduates. High achievers are disproportionately drawn from white, Asian, wealthy, college-educated families, but not all are.
Figure 2: Selected characteristics of underperforming students
Source: National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2019 Reading, Grade 8
Figure 3: Racial/ethnic composition of students below the 25th percentile
Source: National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2019 Reading, Grade 8
Now let’s get down to the big question. What is driving these different trends? Not surprisingly, the Board remains silent on this question. It is a fact-based outfit, and everyone should understand that NAEP, for all its virtues, cannot explain causation. But even if you’re careful not to get involved in false NAEP, the rest can still guess.
Let’s look at a few hypotheses, remembering that what is causing the lower score for lower performers may not be the same factor that is causing the higher score for high performers. prize.
First, you should consider possibilities unrelated to school. After all, test scores include everything a child has experienced in their life up to that point. This also includes the socioeconomic status of the family at an early age. A wealth of words heard from parents and other caregivers. Preschool experience; yes, instruction in the K–12 system. Children spend more time outside of school than in school, so we should always assume that something outside of school can lead to changes in test scores across the population. This may include:
- The impact of the Great Recession on the socioeconomic status of children.
- The ongoing changes that are causing social inequalities, such as “assortative mating” and intensive (and sometimes excessive) parenting among college-educated adults, are having a major impact.
- Changes in how children spend their time, especially when it comes to screen time.
Other possible explanations relate directly to schooling.
- Funds were cut due to the Great Recession.
- Moved away from the strict test-based accountability system for schools in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in favor of looser requirements in the era of NCLB exemptions, and eventually to the laissez-faire approach of the Every Student Succeeds Act To do.
- Moving to higher standards and higher educational goals for the Common Core.
Let’s find out if any of these possibilities make sense.
Top performers fly higher
Let’s start with the top winners. What will help her top seniors and her eighth grades perform better than ever?
Given the horrific fallout of the Great Recession, it’s hard to believe that there is an economy-wide explanation for this trend.
It is also difficult, if not impossible, to understand whether the pervasiveness of smartphones and other screens in our children’s lives would be beneficial. Are they using their screens to learn more and indulge their curiosity? Perhaps they’re listening to Khan Academy’s daily lessons and YouTube videos of educational content? But could it be?
Or most of the benefits of America’s wealthy, college-educated parents waiting to marry each other and start families until they’re older and more wealthy, and then devoting vast amounts of time and resources to raising their children. Perhaps all the money spent on organic food, after-school tutoring, and fulfilling summer activities is paying off.
But in my view, a more plausible explanation is that schools are paying more attention to high performing students than they did in the early 2000s. The problem, as we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute reported at the time, was that the NCLB was focused on helping the lowest performing students reach the lower proficiency levels. Teachers admitted to prioritizing struggling students over everyone else. All of our accountability systems encouraged them to do so.
Perhaps that started to change as NCLB was waived and eventually ESSA allowed the state to focus on student development. At the same time, the move to the Common Core has prompted teachers to raise the level of instruction and adopt more challenging curriculum materials. All of this could have benefited students who achieved excellent grades. The students received more attention from their teachers and were able to receive more strictly targeted instruction according to their level of preparation.
Indeed, for this hypothesis to be true, it would require a multi-step process taking place at scale in huge countries spanning entire continents.
Whatever the explanation, I’m happy about it and look forward to seeing some academics with serious methodological chops find clever ways to test one or more of these hypotheses. It would be great if these trends could be maintained even after the
How low can you go?
Next is the bad news about underperforming students. Frankly, I think this puzzle is easier to solve.
I have previously argued that the Great Recession had a negative impact on the performance of poor and working-class students. It’s not the same group we’re talking about here, but there’s clearly a lot of overlap. The impact came directly in the form of difficult years for families when these students were toddlers, toddlers and preschoolers.Incomes plummeted.Poverty rates rose. Food insecurity increased. All of this will make a difference in the subsequent performance of these tykes. For example, consider her NWEA findings that showed a drop in test scores for kindergarten entry in the early 2010s. I think this also explains why, even before the pandemic, many social indicators, such as homicide rates and car crashes, were headed in the wrong direction. It can take years or even decades for the downstream effects of early childhood hardships to become apparent.
The impact of the Great Recession also came indirectly in the form of dramatic K-12 spending cuts from 2011 to 2014. Kirabo Jackson has convincingly shown that these cuts will have a negative impact on the company’s performance. And it’s not hard to imagine that these spending cuts may have hurt the worst-performing children the most.
The screen time story makes more sense here as well, as kids are spending dramatically more time on devices and social media, which can be a hindrance to learning. Especially when low-achieving students spent more time on screen than their high-achieving peers.
And then there’s the end of No Child Left Behind and the rise of Common Core. Moving away from the proficiency-only policy of the NCLB era and focusing on growth and rigorous standards has facilitated the transition from basic skills drill-and-kill to higher levels of instruction. I think it was the right thing to do, and probably helped the majority of students, but it’s possible that the teacher’s lesson started to get left far beyond the underperforming student’s head. I’ve heard concerns from teachers all the time that they struggle to use quality materials. They want more help to “scaffold” their instruction, and it’s only recently that many publishers have been able to offer decent advice on that front.
Again, these are educated guesses, and if analysts could start confirming which of these theories are evidence-based, we’d have better results.
In the meantime, we’ll be looking from the release of long-term trends to see if we’re in even worse shape than when we were coming out of the pandemic… in the post-pandemic era and beyond.