What's Causing National Test Scores To Drop?

The Washington Post has a piece out about national test scores dipping for the first time since the federal government began this test in 1990.

Fourth-graders and eighth-graders across the United States lost ground on national mathematics tests this year, the first declines in scores since the federal government began administering the exams in 1990.

Reading performance also was sobering: Eighth-grade scores dropped, according to results released Wednesday, while fourth-grade performance was stagnant compared with 2013, the last time students took the test.

And the tests again show large achievement gaps between the nation’s white and minority students as well as between poor and affluent children, an indication that the nation’s disadvantaged students are not gaining ground despite more than a decade of federal law designed to boost their achievement.

There are several data points mentioned within the story:

  1. Fourth grade and eighth grade math results dropped (one point in fourth and two points in eighth).
  2. Eighth grade reading results dropped  by two points while fourth grade reading results stayed the same.
  3. There are an increasing number of students from low-income and non-English-speaking families.
  4. Most states have adopted comprehensive curriculum reform, including Common Core State Standards.
  5. 64 percent of fourth graders and 66 percent of eighth graders do not score as proficient in reading.
  6. 60 percent of fourth graders and 67 percent of eighth graders do not score as proficient in math.
  7. State result trends mirrored national level trends.
  8. Urban schools’ scores remained relatively on the same level.
  9. Maryland had the biggest drop in scores while Washington D.C. had the best growth in fourth grade.
  10. Virginia’s scores were virtually unchanged.

Those ten data points by themselves tell us little. However, when presented together, we see a trend: the comprehensive reform has set things back.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan defended those policies in a call with reporters Tuesday, saying that massive changes in schools often lead to a temporary drop in test scores while teachers and students adjust. But the new standards and other policies, Duncan said, are poised to improve student achievement — and students’ lives — in the long terdatam.

“Big change never happens overnight,” Duncan said. “I’m confident that over the next decade, if we stay committed to this change, we will see historic improvements.”

Arne, if you’ll recall, is on his way out, and is the near villainous character within the education department that tried to force Common Core on the states by tying implementation to federal dollars. We would expect Arne to defend those policies, because it would be irresponsible to take something so new to the school systems around the county (Common Core) and say that it’s the reason scores are dropping. We don’t have enough data to say there is a trend of scores dropping.

But, we have enough data to say definitively that something about the new standards or curricula or whatever the case may be caused a hiccup in the data. If I had to guess:

  • Increased class size due to schools wanting more of that sweet government money is causing teachers spread themselves thin, making quick and effective feedback much harder (if not, at times, impossible).
  • Common Core State Standards, whether you like them or not, were simply implemented too quickly to be effective at any rate*.
  • Little to no competition (charter schools, school choice, voucher plans… pick your poison) is keeping the education system stagnant and while you can change standards and curriculum, you can’t change the culture so easily.

Now, if you want to measure national trends, don’t do it by giving everyone the same thing to study. States should be free to choose their education style. When it fails, then studying the testing data would let us see what state is doing something right, and find out what that something is. From there, another state can choose to adopt similar policies in order to improve their student growth.

It is important to not panic when we see “SCORES ARE DROPPING”, but we do need to find out quickly where the issues are and what we can do to fix them.

Without the federal government forcing states to do it, I might add.


*I teach and therefore see the merit in the Common Core State Standards for English. However, Louisiana is a prime example of failure to properly train teachers on how to implement, and a lot of frustration not only stems from rather bad curricula, but also just utter confusion as to what the hell they’re supposed to do.

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