Test Score Story the Media Will Miss

The latest 4th and 8th grade test scores for “The Nation’s Report Card,” or National Assessment of Educational Progress, were released this morning. They show improvement in reading and math, particularly at the 4th grade.

The story that the media will report will revolve around claims by No Child Left Behind advocates that their law is responsible for these improvements. In reality, NCLB almost certainly has little to do with these results, since they simply continue patterns that date back at least to 1990 – a dozen years before the law was passed.

But that’s not the real story. The real story is that none of these improvements have been persisting through to the end of high school. What families and business leaders care about is how well students are prepared for life and work at the end of high school. As the NAEP Long Term Trend results show, the mathematics achievement of 17-year-olds has been flat since 1990, and their reading achievement has actually declined. In fact, achievement among 17-year-olds is flat or declining in math, reading, and science since the first NAEP tests were administered in the late 60s and early 70s – despite the fact that real spending has doubled to more than $11,000 per pupil over that period.

What that means is that the improvements in the earliest grades simply represent a shifting of when learning is happening, not an increase in what students ultimately learn. We are, in the hackneyed phrase, merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as it continues to slip beneath the waves.

That’s the sad but true story that the American people need to be told.