Nation’s Report Card on Schools: Needs Improvement

By Michelle Chen Mar 26, 2010

Two dramas played out in the education system this week. While New York activists scored a court ruling barring the closure of 19 "underperforming" schools, Washington mulled over the latest national report card in reading and math. The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)–the closest thing the country has to a national exam system–reveal underperformance on a grand scale. Since 2007, the gaps that Bush’s No Child Left Behind program vowed to close have remained abysmal.

Compared to 2007, there have been no significant changes in the racial/ethnic gaps, gender gaps, or gaps by type of school at either grade. Compared to 1992, only the White – Black gap at grade 4 and the female – male gap at grade 8 have narrowed.

Diane Ravitch, who served at the head of the Department of Education under the first Bush presidency, looked at the NAEP as a barometer of failed reform efforts over the past generation:

Nationwide, NAEP scores have gone up in math since 2003, but the rate of improvement has been less than before the passage of NCLB. In eighth-grade reading, there was no improvement at all from 1998 to 2007. Accountability pressures have also led to widespread gaming of the system. Every so often, a cheating scandal is uncovered, but such scandals are minor compared to the ways in which states have manipulated the scoring of tests to produce inflated results. New York state education officials, for instance, made it easier to rate students as “proficient” by lowering the number of points that a student needed to earn on the state tests. In 2006, a seventh grader needed to get 59.6 percent on the state math test to be rated proficient, but, by 2009, a student needed to earn only 44 percent. Although most people would consider this a failing grade, the lowering of the “cut point” produced the desired results: In 2006, 55.6 percent of seventh graders were rated proficient, but, by 2009, that proportion had soared to 87.3 percent.

Though clearly a blunt instrument, the NAEP tests provide a certain measuring stick for school districts that generally operate under state and local control. The depressing gaps in scores will likely add fuel to the Obama administration’s push for tighter, more comprehensive national standards. Already, school districts have been banding together to create regional standards and testing protocols–spurred on by the billions of dollars Obama has been dangling before states to incentivize "innovation." But for all the chatter about school reform and better tests, progressive education activists say the push for reform is fundamentally shortsighted, because it’s still tethered to the "test and punish" regime that the new administration has inherited from its predecessor. Whether they call it No Child Left Behind or some other catch phrase, the obsession with two-dimensional tests and the rhetoric of "accountability" continues to dominate the administration’s reform ethos. So the NAEP, at least in statistical terms, carries on perhaps the only qualified success of No Child Left Behind–hard data outlining the failures of the education system in communities of color. On the other hand, true educational reform requires breaking out of the testing regime altogether and looking at the human elements of making schools work–as well as the role of unions and alternative structures like charters. The balance between driving for results and pushing for more visionary change is going to involve careful debate engaging teachers, parents, youth and all community stakeholders. That discussion is ill-served by the privateering, corporate reform evangelism we’ve seen playing out in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City. The challenge of school reform will test the capacity of officials to rethink teaching in learning in ways that can’t be quantified. Image: Ruby Washington/The New York Times