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Answer Sheet: Did We Need NAEP To Tell Us Students Aren't Doing Well?

After several years of a pandemic that upended schooling for millions of children, standardized test scores are coming back and the results are — can you guess? — bad. In most places, really bad, meaning much lower than before the pandemic. That’s what we just learned from the newly released results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which have sparked a tsunami of alarmed responses.

From Education Secretary Miguel Cardona: “The results released today from the National Assessment of Educational Progress are appalling, unacceptable, and a reminder of the impact that this pandemic has had on our learners.”

Cheryl Oldham, U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president of education policy: “This is a wake-up call for our country — for policymakers, leaders in public education, and the business community. These results show that learning loss has risen to historic levels in part due to the impact of the pandemic, which only exacerbated existing failures in the education system.”

A wake-up call? Did we really need millions of dollars worth of standardized test scores to reveal that students were badly impacted by the pandemic? Ask most teachers and they can give you a clear picture of the achievement of their students without a standardized test. The thing is that in the United States, teachers don’t get asked much about education when key decisions are being made about teaching and learning.

We have been hearing from school districts since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 that students were hit hard by the disruption in their schooling. Students aren’t shy about admitting it. Teacher-created tests show it, as do state standardized test results. Student health clinics and mental health professionals are inundated with young people suffering from pandemic school closures and the resulting social isolation and disruption to their lives. Did anybody expect average test scores to do anything but drop?

The hysteria over NAEP reflects our continued obsession with standardized testing, which began with the 2002 No Child Left Behind law and has shown no evidence of helping improve schools. The results — which can’t explain the “why” part of achievement levels rising, falling or staying the same — keep telling us what we already know.

NAEP is often 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. The National Center for Education Statistics, which administers NAEP, says the exams can 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 — said to be randomly selected — and less frequently to high school students. Tests are given every other year in math and reading and less frequently in science, writing, the arts, civics, economics, geography, technology and engineering literacy, and U.S. history.

NAEP assessments sort student scores into three achievement levels — basic, proficient, and advanced; test results also show students who score below the basic level. Peggy G. Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which funds and administers NAEP, has said repeatedly that if people want to know how many students are performing at grade level, they should be looking at the “basic” benchmark. The NAEP website says the same thing. “The NAEP proficient level is intended to reflect solid academic performance and is not intended to match the proficiency levels set by state departments of education. Additionally, it does not signify ‘being on grade level.’"

NAEP results are often misinterpreted (which you can read about here); 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 the case. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) made that mistake this year when he released a report on Virginia students’ achievement that was based largely on a misreading of NAEP scores.

According to state NAEP results released Monday, student scores this year declined across the country in reading and math in fourth and eighth grade to levels seen some two decades ago. Carr said the results provide the “clearest picture yet” of the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on learning. What is also clear is that average NAEP scores have been essentially flat for at least a decade, going up in some cities and down in others.

New state standardized test scores, which are supposedly aligned with school curriculum, unlike NAEP, already have shown entirely predictable declines in academic performance. FutureEd, an education think tank located at Georgetown University, analyzed results from standardized testing conducted this past spring year in 39 states. It found that all but six of those states that released testing results saw declines in overall proficiency rates in math and English language arts from 2019.

Meanwhile, reaction to the NAEP results are, not surprisingly, being used to push education agendas.

Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida who pioneered standardized test-based accountability systems more than two decades ago, blamed “the system” for the low scores, not the pandemic. “I am certain the right policy with unflinching resolve can provide a pathway forward.”

When national 2022 NAEP scores were released last month (Monday’s were state-specific), Walter Blanks, press secretary for the nonprofit advocacy group American Federation for Children, which was co-founded by former education secretary Betsy DeVos, blamed teachers’ unions for the drop because they pushed schools to stay closed. Some local unions did; others didn’t.

But if they were to blame for declining NAEP scores, you would expect regional NAEP results differences depending on the influence of unions. Carol Burris, a former award-winning principal and executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Network for Public Education, noted after the September NAEP score release that “there is only [a] one-point difference in the scores’ drops between the union-heavy northeast and the right-to-work dominated south. And Western states, where unions are prevalent in the most populous states, saw much smaller score drops than the south.”

James Harvey, an education policy analyst and immediate past executive director of the nonprofit National Superintendents Roundtable, noted, “It’s tempting to find fault and point fingers: the schools, the unions, the Centers for Disease Control, the secretary of education, or the man in the Oval Office. All of us enjoy the satisfaction of finding someone to blame. Our focus must be on building responses to the toxic educational effects of the pandemic. How do we find extra time for all students to help make up for what they have lost? What about counseling and mental health services? Retaining teachers who are leaving politicized classrooms and luring back those who have fled? How can we build a national capacity for individual tutoring?”

Harry Feder, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a nonprofit known as FairTest that advocates against the misuse and abuse of standardized testing, said the results “are not a simple product of one particular factor or policy.”

“Test scores cannot be the sole measure of school quality, as inputs, attendance, surveys of stakeholder satisfaction, success of graduates, and a variety of other factors should go into that determination. Nor should declining NAEP scores be used to conclude that public education is a failure,” he wrote.

“In 2022, the overriding factor in any unusually large decline from 2019 to 2022 can be boiled down to one word — covid. Above all, the NAEP results shouldn’t precipitate a call for more tests.”

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Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.