Getting What We Asked For…

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

The National Assessment Governing Board, or NAGB, released test results yesterday on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), better known as the Nation’s Report Card. NAEP has become well known over the years because, outside of the SAT and ACT college admissions tests, it is the only true national test that allows us to compare students across the United States.

The report that came yesterday is that, although students are taking a more rigorous curriculum, test scores in mathematics and reading are not increasing. And that concerns lawmakers. Massachusetts Commissioner of Education David Driscoll, who sits on the NAGB board, said “I think we are sleeping through a crisis.” And he may be right.

The results are in part an outcome of the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in early 2002 by President Bush and up for reauthorization this year by Congress. A major component of NCLB is to support (or coerce) state governments to improve its data capacity and report the “Annual Yearly Progress,” or AYP (we love acronyms in the US), of students in elementary and secondary education.

The NAEP findings, if accurate, smell of grade inflation and watering down of curricula. Why else could we see a leveling in scores since the last NAEP assessment in 2002, especially when the courses are supposedly more rigorous and the grade point averages of students higher than before? That mathematics principal seems pretty straightforward to me. If the dependent variable is constant, and the two main independent variables have increased, then there has to be something else going on. In this case, the quality of education, not to be equated with rigor, is potentially at play.

Even the Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, said yesterday that if students are taking more challenging courses and earning higher grades, “we should be seeing greater gains in test scores.” But we aren’t.

The nation has been asking for more data on education for the past decade. President Clinton tried to get a national test in place, built largely on the NAEP, but couldn’t push it through the Republican Congress, who emphasized that the federal government should stay out a state issue. But only a few years later, that same Congress rubber stamped the newly-minted President’s plan for national testing that far surpassed what Clinton had posed.

Today we have 50 states and several jurisdictions working under the umbrella of NCLB and redefining how they measure the academic progress of over 55 million students in 110,000 schools in 10,000 school districts across the country. But they don’t use NAEP. They use whatever they want to, making comparisons difficult at best. We know this personally at EPI because we’re attempting to make sense of AYP of students with special needs in states across the country, and it isn’t easy.

But data are coming, and we must ask the simple question: are we prepared for the answers we may get from these assessments? I believe many states have been worried about this issue for years, which is why many were reticent about national testing and AYP. They really didn’t want anyone to know about their dirty little secrets. Education is a multi-billion dollar business, and if academic outcomes are equated with the resources put into the system, it doesn’t look very good. The new data that come from NAEP, and additional data from NCLB advances over the next few years, have the potential to show how poorly we really do with students, and how there is a potential for systems to “play the data.”

Conversely, and the point I try and make to professionals, is that these are the data we need to push educational reform. If we don’t know where the challenges lay, how do we know what to fix? The NAEP report released yesterday clearly shows that there is a critical issue to tackle. In the words of Secretary Spellings, “We have our work cut out.” And we do.

Data collection and the use of data are clearly important for improving education. It is the foundation of the No Child Left Behind Act. Today we will continue this conversation with our first EPILive program. EPILive is our web-based talk show on educational issues, and today we welcome Aimee Guidera and Nancy Smith of the Data Quality Campaign, which is a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of educational data collection and use in the 50 states. Providing a state perspective is Bethann Canada of the Virginia Department of Education.

If you would like to engage with these individuals at EPILive, join us at 1pm EST today. EPILive uses webinar software and requires telephone dial-up for audio, and participants can ask questions via a chat mechanism on the site. Joining the discussion does require a quick registration process that should be done in advance to ensure we can email you the appropriate logon and phone information.

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