Do Racial Disparities Explain Flat Student Performance?

The latest results of the Nation’s Report Card for history, geography, and civics are out, and as usual they are depressing. The exam, formally known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, is administered to a representative sample of U.S. students to give a snapshot of student performance in a variety of subjects nationwide. Education Week reports:

The nation’s eighth graders have made no academic progress in U.S. history, geography or civics since 2010, according to the latest test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Fewer than one-third of students scored proficient or better on any of the tests and only 3 percent or fewer scored at the advanced level in any of the three subjects.

No significant changes since 2010

However, Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners argues that saying students “have made no academic progress” is “the wrong way to look at it” because of something called Simpson’s Paradox (which has nothing to do with the voice of Principal Skinner and Mr. Burns turing down a $14 million contract):

Which Schools Best Serve the Public? New U.S. History, Civics Scores Point to Them

The latest 8th grade U.S. history, civics, and geography results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress – the so-called Nation’s Report Card – have been released, and as usual, things seem bleak: only 18 percent of students scored proficient in U.S. history, 23 percent in civics, and 27 percent in geography. These kinds of results, however, should be taken with a few salt grains because we can’t see the full tests, and the setting of proficiency levels can be a bit arbitrary. Also, we don’t…

Oh, the heck with all that. As a fan of school choice, just tell me if private schools did better!

Based on the raw data, they did. 31 percent of private school students were proficient in U.S. history, versus 17 percent of public schoolers; 38 percent were proficient in civics, versus 22 percent of public schools kids; and 44 percent were proficient in geography, versus 25 percent of public schools kids. That said, to really know which broad swath of schools did better – and from a parent’s perspective, it is really only the individual schools from which they might choose that matter – you’d have to control for all sorts of characteristics of their students. From what I’ve seen, what was just released didn’t do that. Thankfully, others have.

What have they found? Controlling for various student characteristics and other factors, private schools beat traditional publics in terms of political knowledge, voluntarism in communities, and other socially desirable outcomes. Why?

There may be many possible reasons, but at least one seems to be intimately connected to choice: autonomous schools select their own curricula, and families willingly accept it when they choose the schools. That means chosen schools can more easily teach coherent U.S. history and civics than can public schools, which often face serious pressures to teach lowest-common-denominator pabulum lest conflict break out among ideologically and politically diverse people. Perhaps ironically – though not if you understand how a free society works – by not being public, private schools may actually serve the public better.

So no, you can’t conclude a lot from the latest NAEP scores. But that doesn’t mean they can’t point you in the right direction.

New National Test Results Released Today

The U.S. Department of Education has just released 2013 results for the National Assessment of Educational Progress—aka, “The Nation’s Report Card.” The scores are for 12th grade reading and mathematics, and neither has changed since the last time they were administered a few years ago. But of course what we really want to know is how well students are performing today compared to those of a generation or two ago. That would tell us if our education system were improving, staying the same, or declining in performance.

The trouble is, “The Nation’s Report Card” doesn’t go back very far.  The reading results reach back to 1992 (since which time, there has been a slight but statistically significant decline), but the math results only reach back to 2005 (since which time, there’s been a slight but statistically significant increase). It’s just not that long of a time period to assess trends.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a different set of NAEP tests, called the “Long Term Trends” series, that reached back all the way to the early 1970s! And wouldn’t it be even better if we could find out how much we’ve spent per pupil over that same time period, so that we could figure out if our schools are getting more or less efficient with our dollars? Well, what do you know, there is, and we can!

But here’s the thing. Some people look at that national trend chart and think: but my state is doing much better than that! Is it? Is it really? I decided to find out, for all fifty states. The result is my recent, mysteriously-titled paper: State Education Trends. Drop by and check out how your state has done over the past 40 years.

[Note to readers: The state charts look at changes in annual per pupil spending over time, whereas the national chart above looks at the change over time in the total cost of a full K-through-12 education, so the spending trend lines are not directly comparable].

No Compelling Evidence ‘No Child’ Worked

Over the last few days the Wall Street Journal has run two articles suggesting that the No Child Left Behind Act has been somewhat successful. But that’s not supported by the federal government’s own measure, the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The WSJ’s first article appeared on Saturday, and while focusing on the stagnation of high-achieving students, it asserts that NAEP exams show “dramatic progress—sometimes double-digit increases—for the lowest achievers over the last two decades, especially after No Child Left Behind.”

Last month I debunked the idea that historically struggling groups have seen dramatic improvements under NCLB, laying out the data from numerous NAEP tests. Quite simply, looking at score gains per year, there were many periods before NCLB that saw faster improvements. Below are two more tables from the latest NAEP scores, released a couple of weeks ago. These are for the so-called “main” NAEP, which is not nearly as valuable as the long-term trends exam for seeing historical patterns, but the WSJ cites it and it does contain new information. The results are for the bottom 10 percent of performers.

As always, at what year one could start crediting results to NCLB is debatable. (Actually, you can never simply look at NAEP scores and attribute them to one factor because so many variables influence outcomes.) That date cannot be earlier than 2002, the year the law was enacted, and probably should be 2003, by which time most of the regulations were written and the law began to take real effect. To deal with this problem, the tables include only years that fully include NCLB or do not include it at all. Also note that there are two pre-NCLB time bands for reading because there are no 2000 8th grade reading scores.

Mathematics, 10th Percentile

Reading, 10th Percentile

Once again, there is is no pattern of faster improvement under NCLB than before it. Highlighting periods with greater growth than under NCLB, you can see that in 4th grade math improvements were faster before NCLB than after. In 8th grade math, it’s essentially a dead heat. In 4th grade reading, there’s sizable improvement under NCLB, and in 8th grade reading there’s an appreciable advantage before NCLB.

The second WSJ piece that gives NCLB undue credit is an op-ed from Kevin Chavous. Chavous, a tremendous advocate for school choice, implies that NCLB supplies “accountability” needed to make American kids competitive with their international peers. But as we’ve seen, there’s precious little evidence that NCLB has done anything to improve educational outcomes. Meanwhile, it has cost us a mint, with Department of Education k-12 spending rising from $27.3 billion in 2001 to $37.9 billion in 2011.

Unfortunately, Chavous’s piece seems more aspirational than reality-based, as is often the case in education policy. “We must try to make schools and teachers accountable,” he seems to be saying. “Heaven knows the states won’t do it!”

The need to deal in reality is why Mr. Chavous’ main concern—getting school choice—is so crucial. Government schooling will never be fundamentally changed because those who would be held accountable—teachers, administrators, bureaucrats—have by far the most motivation to be involved in education politics, the greatest ability to organize, and hence the biggest store of political power. Their livelihoods, after all, are at stake. And what do they want? What we’d all probably like: as much pay as possible with as little accountability.

The only way to end employee domination of education is to fundamentally change the system: instead of having politics control schooling, let parents control education money so they can take their children out of schools they don’t like and put them into those they do. Don’t force them to undertake the endless, hopeless warfare of having to form coalitions, try to get politicians’ ears, spur politicians to move and, if they can ever get decent changes, then force them to constantly fight to keep the reforms against opponents with full-time lobbyists and political machines. No, let them vote with their feet, right away, and get their children the education they need.

NCLB is, by most indications, an abject failure, and the very nature of government schooling doomed it to be so.

NAEP: If the Scores Don’t Rise, You Must Revise!

New science test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress were released today, and they’re not comparable to the scores for earlier years. You may want to know whether our schools are getting better or worse over time in this subject, but apparently the federal government is more ambivalent.

There are actually two different flavors of the NAEP tests: the Long Term Trends (which stay the same over time so that we can see, well, trends), and the “Nation’s Report Card,” which can be redesigned whenever it is absolutely… convenient.

But here’s the thing: the NAEP Long Term Trends science test has not been administered since 1999, when it showed that a statistically significant decline in achievement had taken place at the end of high school since the test began in 1974 (see the chart below). If there’s an official reason for its discontinuation, I’m not aware of it.

The “Nation’s Report Card” science test that was administered in 1996, 2000, and 2005 also showed a statistically significant decline over that period at the end of high school. Today America learns that that test has been discontinued, too. The new “Report Card” science test is not comparable to the earlier one, so now we have no national measure of science trends at all.

Maybe there’s an excellent reason why the federal government no longer wants to measure trends in science  achievement, but if there is, I suspect it’s political rather than educational.

New NAEP Scores Reveal Education Shell Game

Over the past two decades, the media and federal education officials have tended to focus on modestly improving test score trends of 4th and 8th graders. As my colleague Neal has mentioned, new 12th grade results were released today, and they once again call that practice into question.

Whether one looks at the fixed “Long Term Trends” series of national test results reaching back to the early 1970s, or at the ever-evolving “Nation’s Report Card” series, it seems as though student achievement has improved a little over time at the 4th and (to a lesser extent) 8th grade levels. By the same token, both of those data series show little or no improvement in achievement at the end of high-school over the past one, two, or four decades. Indeed the most recent 12th grade results show a small but statistically significant decline in reading scores since 1992.

High school graduates are no better prepared today than they were in previous generations, despite the fact that we’re spending 3 times as much on their K-12 educations. Some of what they’re learning they may be learning a bit earlier, but when applying to college it’s the K-12 academic destination that matters, not the journey.

And that destination suggests that the past four decades of so-called public “school reform” have done nothing to improve the academic preparation of high school seniors for college, life and work. Not ESEA. Not NCLB.

Perhaps government is not the best source of progress and innovation after all? Perhaps if we want to see progress and innovation in education we should allow it to participate in the free enterprise system that has been responsible for staggering productivity growth in every field not dominated by a government monopoly?