Tuesday, November 12, 2019

What's really behind the city, state and national drop in NAEP scores

The results of the biennual national tests called NAEPs were released on October 30, showing stagnant or declining test scores in reading and math in nearly all states in the decade since 2009. 
“Over the past decade, there has been no progress in either mathematics or reading performance, and the lowest-performing students are doing worse,” said Peggy Carr, the associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP. “In fact, over the long term in reading, the lowest-performing students—those readers who struggle the most—have made no progress from the first NAEP administration almost 30 years ago.”
The poor results are most likely a consequence of several factors, including the damaging double whammy experienced by schools in 2009-2011 – when the great recession hit, which led to thousands of teacher jobs lost and class sizes increasing sharply, and the imposition of the Common Core standards.
Concerning the recession, see the chart below from the Economic Policy Institute, showing a current shortfall of more than 300,000 public education jobs starting in about 2010:

Many states and districts, including NYC, still have not recovered from the sharp increase in class size that occurred starting in 2008.   Just as class size reduction benefits students of color and from low income families the most, increases in class size hurt their opportunities to learn the most, helping to explain the widening achievement gap over this period.
In addition, the corporate-style policies that proponents claimed would help narrow the achievement gap, including the Common Core standards and state exams aligned with those standards, adopted in nearly all states starting in 2010, likely contributed to the decline in performance on the NAEPs as well.
The Common Core emphasizes informational text rather than literature, and  “close reading” strategies, with students assigned to analyze short passages, often excerpts from literature, in isolation from any larger context.
In essence, Common Core led to a curriculum designed for test prep, but devoid of engaging relevance and content for many students. To make things worse, the assigned texts are often two or three Lexile grade levels above the actual reading level of the students to whom the reading is assigned, in a misplaced intent to provide more “rigor.”
Close reading involves analyzing and re-analyzing individual passages, focusing on details and interpreting the author’s particular choice of words, structure, and intent, without any reference to anything in the student’s own experience or prior knowledge: “Students go deeper in the text, explore the author’s craft and word choices, analyze the text’s structure and implicit meaning” etc..  It is a process that is more suited to a graduate seminar in literary criticism than elementary or even high school English classrooms, and has been imposed upon classrooms throughout the United States in a misguided effort to sharpen their analytic “skills”.  It is hard to imagine anything more boring, and more likely to turn off a young reader.
Here are some recent tweets from teachers around the country, in discussing the Common Core in relation to the latest NAEP scores.
From a second grade teacher in Louisiana:
And a special ed teacher in New York:
Strangely enough, the NY Times story on the NAEPs mentioned neither the recession nor the Common Core in attempting to explain why there has been no  progress since 2009. In a Twitter exchange with one of the reporters, she said no one had mentioned Common Core to her in years.   

I don’t doubt that few if any of its original proponents now mention Common Core  – given its abysmal failure to improve results in our schools -- but that doesn’t mean that millions of students and teachers aren’t still wrestling with its flaws every day in classrooms throughout the nation, as evidenced by the above tweets.

In any case, the last quote in the Times article was from Jim Cowen, the executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, an organization established to promote the Common Core standards, decrying how the state tests -- those explicitly aligned with the standards -- have become too easy and there was a need for "accountability" -- but not apparently for those who promoted the flawed standards themselves.

Moreover, the other experts quoted decried the emphasis on short passages rather than allowing students read longer books with richer meanings and larger contexts, without specifically mentioning the Common Core.

Peter Afflerbach, an expert on reading and testing at the University of Maryland, called the eighth-grade declines “troubling” and “precipitous,” especially for the lowest-achieving students saying that  "too many schools have assigned elementary students short passages instead of challenging them with longer, thematically rich texts and books.The new eighth-grade results show the students haven’t developed the reading comprehension to deal with text complexity."

Compounding the bad news was a just-released report from the ACT, showing that College Readiness levels in English, reading, math, and science have all decreased since 2015, with English and math seeing the largest decline.  
A recent study has provided further evidence for the negative impact of the Common Core. In those states whose original standards differed significantly from the Common Core, the adoption of the new standards had a significantly depressing impact on test scores which has grown over time, with the sharpest negative effect on fourth grade reading scores and especially on the achievement of students with disabilities, English Language learners, and Hispanic students.
Altogether, the falling NAEP scores, the ACT report, and this study represent a devastating indictment of the Gates/David Coleman/Arne Duncan reform agenda -- and yet despite all the evidence against them, and the fervent critiques from teachers, most states are sticking with the standards and the flawed pedagogy they impose.  As Susan DuFresne, a teacher in Washington state, proclaimed:
One more trend may have contributed to the decline in reading scores over the last few years. There has been a sharp increase in the use of digital reading programs across the country – with a survey from Common Sense Media revealing that 94 percent of English/language arts teachers say that they used them for core curriculum at least several times a month. This is despite a wealth of research that suggests that reading comprehension suffers when reading is done on screens. 

An Ed Week analysis of the just-released NAEP data found that in both grades 4 and 8, students who spent more time on digital devices in English class scored lower on these exams. Look at this astonishing graphic - showing that 65% of students who scored below basic on the NAEPs spent four hours or more of classroom time on screens per day.  Whether this association is due to correlation or causation, it is a highly disturbing trend:
As for NYC in particular, the much ballyhooed upward trend in state scores has now been proven to be illusory, as I argued last year, as was the Mayor's claim that the achievement of NYC students has  matched or surpassed average achievement in the rest of the state.  
According to the more reliably scaled NAEPs, in no subject or grade do the NYC scores come close to the average in the rest of the state – even though the state scores too have stagnated over the last decade.  Also confirmed was my prediction in 2016 that we have entered yet another era of state test score inflation.
And while in 2003, NYC students scored  above the large city average in all four NAEP exams, we have now slipped behind that level in three out of the four categories– and only equal it in one: fourth grade reading.  The same pattern exists with NY state’s NAEP scores, which were once ahead of curve nationally and have now fallen below it. 
What’s especially disconcerting, though, is how little seems to have been learned from the failures of the past.  A few days after the NAEPs were released, the NY State Education Department announced it was hiring Achieve.org to summarize the research and the public feedback on whether and how to revise the state’s high school graduation requirements, which rely on students passing five high-stakes exit exams.  Achieve.org has been one of leaders in the Gates-funded push for the Common Core,
In addition, the NYSED public engagement process, which will involve a Commission and multiple forums, will be funded by the Gates Foundation, which has spent more than $400 million since 2009 on financing and goading states to adopt the Common Core, with hundreds of millions more spent to encourage the expansion of online learning.   
Eleven states out of 27 have in recent years dropped their high school exit exams, and many of them now allow high school diplomas to be retroactively awarded.  This trend follows research showing that the practice of requiring students to pass these exams leads not to higher achievement or college readiness, but instead to higher drop-out and incarceration rates.    

And yet for some inconceivable reason, the NY State Education Department has chosen to work with the primary funder of the Common Core, as well as  one of the organizations that set our nation’s schools on the wrong path, to help guide their deliberations on this important issue. 

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