The education tragedy you haven’t heard about

Posted on October 20, 2021

Last week, an agency of the Department of Education reported that, for the first time since testing began in the 1970s, nationwide scores dropped for all categories on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), dubbed “the Nation’s Report Card.”

To be specific, when the NAEP Long-Term Trends (LTT) test administered before COVID closed schools in 2020 is compared to the last LTT in 2012, math scores for 13-year-olds dropped 5 points, math scores for 9-year-olds dropped 3 points, reading scores for 13-year-olds dropped 3 points, and reading scores for 9-year-olds declined by one point. (Note: 13-year-olds took the test in late 2019 and 9-year-olds in early 2020.)

Not surprisingly, it is the poorest-scoring, lowest-income students who have been hurt the most. Comparing 2020 to 2012 on the LTT, for children in the lowest tenth percentile, math scores for 13-year-olds dropped 12 points, math scores for 9-year-olds dropped 6 points, reading scores for 13-year-olds dropped 5 points, and reading scores for 9-year-olds dropped 7 points.

These across-the-board declines are unprecedented but not too far from the regular every-two-years NAEP scores where, comparing 2019 to 2011, average math scores for 8th graders dropped 2 points, math scores for 4th graders stayed the same, reading scores for 8th graders dropped 2 points, and reading scores for 4th graders declined by one point.

The NAEP-LTT examines more basic knowledge, uses shorter narratives, and keeps questions a lot more similar from one test to another than the two-year NAEP. So, the LTT decline is quite alarming because it’s more an apples-to-apples comparison of fundamental learning. As Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics explained: “This is more discouraging news…. Our struggling students are struggling more than they ever have before.”

The NAEP-LTT results do not describe a “crisis,” it is a tragedy – a slow-motion train wreck.

Obviously, the question is, what caused the wreck? For the answer, we must identify which circumstances both changed nationwide and most significantly affected high-poverty students who already had the lowest test scores.

Consider No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and accompanying “education reform” policies and programs. The NCLB law was enacted in 2001, but its mandates and punitive provisions didn’t greatly disrupt most high-poverty schools until about ten years later.

For more affluent children, NCLB did not change much because their standardized test scores never looked bad. And, of course, schools are not monolithic; different schools handled NCLB in different ways.

But in most cases, high-poverty schools saw innumerable ill-conceived tactics: teaching to the test, wasting chunks of time on pre-tests, narrowing the curriculum, stripping from teachers the discretion to meet the needs of individual children, adopting one gimmicky teaching method after another, closing neighborhood schools, opening charters willy-nilly, and firing teachers who said the obvious – that all these changes were hurting their students.

Speaking to this blog’s audience of well-educated adults – most of you cannot imagine how different today’s schooling for high-poverty children is from the schooling you and/or your children experienced. For students most in need, “education reform” has made school far more boring, repetitive, and seemingly pointless.

Listen to our nation’s preeminent education historian, Diane Ravitch: “The education reform movement that started with George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law is dead. It died because every strategy it imposed on the nation’s schools has failed.”