No Matter What, NCLB is Great!

This morning the results from the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics and U.S. history assessments came out, and the results were, well, a bit blah. But that didn’t get the Bush administration off message. Like almost everything that happens in American education, they declared the results proof that the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is working!

Let’s look briefly at the results, and then get to the spin.

First, U.S. history, which had scores for 1994, 2001 and 2006. In 4th grade, the proportion of students hitting the desired performance level – proficient – was a mere 18 percent, and that was only a one percentage point increase over 1994, the first year reported, and no change from 2001. The increase in students demonstrating at least “basic” knowledge was a little bigger, rising six percentage points from 1994 and four from 2001.

In 8th grade the proficiency increases were better, but final totals worse. The chunk of students hitting proficiency rose from 14 percent in 1994, to 16 percent in 2001, to 17 percent in 2006. Students hitting at least basic rose from 61 percent in 1994, to 62 percent in 2001, to 65 percent in 2006.

For 12th graders – our schools’ final products – a measly 13 percent were proficient in U.S. history, though that was up from only 11 percent in 1994 and 2001. The percentage hitting at least basic was also up, but only to 47 percent from 43 percent in the previous years.

Now to civics, where the scores were for 1998 and 2006.

In 4th grade, the proportion of students hitting proficiency rose from 23 to 24 percent, and at-or-above basic improved from 69 to 73 percent. In 8th grade there was stagnation, with the percent proficient stuck at 22, and at-least basic at 70. Finally, in 12th grade the percentage hitting proficiency rose from 26 to 27 percent, and at least basic from 65 to 66 percent.

So, on the whole, scores didn’t get any worse than in previous years but they also didn’t get much better, results I’d summarize as ho-hum. To read U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ reaction, however, you’d think we’d seen totally different reports – literally:

For the past five years, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has focused attention and support on helping students become stronger readers. The release today by The Nation’s Report Card on U.S. History and Civics proves NCLB is working and preparing our children to succeed.

Wait a minute.

Reading? What the… Oh, right. Reading “counts” under NCLB’s accountability regime, but U.S. history and civics don’t. The secretary is therefore “bridging” – leaving the subject at hand in order to make an off-topic point, one intended to provide the standard Bush administration education message: NCLB is working!

The reports offer further indication that our nation’s achievement gap continues to narrow: our lowest-performing students are making the greatest gains, particularly in the early grades…. These results are a testament to what works. As students’ skills in reading fluency and comprehension strengthen, so does their ability to do well in other subject areas. While critics may argue that NCLB leads educators to narrow their curriculum focus, the fact is, when students know how to read and comprehend, they apply these skills to other subjects like history and civics. The result is greater academic gains.

Oh, politics! In what other realm could someone so deftly turn mediocre news about one thing into a declaration of victory in something else? But it’s all sleight of hand, a trick to take our eyes off the humdrum civics and history results and put them on reading “success.” But don’t be fooled.

The most recent NAEP reading assessment – you know, the one that actually assesses reading – provided results from 2002 and 2005, a period fully covered by NCLB, and showed that reading scores either stagnated or dropped in that time. For instance, the average 4th grade reading score was stuck at 219 (out of 500) in both 2002 and 2005, and 8th grade scores dropped from 264 to 262. And how were scores for those “lowest performing students” whose improvements Spellings touted? The average mark for students in the lowest ten percent of 4th grade performers rose from 170 to just 171 between 2002 and 2005, and was stuck at 196 for the lowest quarter. In 8th grade the average score of the lowest 10 percent dropped from 220 to 216, and of the lowest quarter dropped from 244 to 240.

So much for the assertion that NCLB-driven reading improvements have led to rising scores in civics and U.S. history – they haven’t even led to rising scores in reading!

Which brings us to the biggest civic lesson we can learn from the new NAEP results: Politicians are concerned first and foremost with making themselves and their programs look as good as they possibly can, not with being honest with the American people. It’s exactly why, both in education and many other things, government truly is best that governs least.