The Good, Bad, and NAEP

Whether we like it or not, the name of the game in public education in the United States is student achievement.  It is the one mean by which we measure or successes, determine our progress, and decide whether we are doing an effective job in our public schools or not.  Usually, that manifests itself in performance on state assessments or how schools stack up when it comes to AYP.  But on those few special days each year, we also have National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, scores.  The Nation’s Report Card provides us the best national snapshot on student academic achievement we can find … until we finally get our act together and adopt and enforce national academic standards.

The NAEP Long-Term Trend Results are out, and this year’s numbers are both good and bad.  The Associated Press has a good piece on the topic here.
As Eduflack is the poster child for pessimism, let’s start out with that which should cause educational improvers and agitators the most heartburn and the largest reason for concern.  And special thanks to the folks over at Education Trust for breaking down the numbers and adding to those things that keep Eduflack up at night.  Chief among out NAEP concerns,  are two simple words — achievement gap.  The data breakdown from our EdTrust friends:
* In reading, African-American nine-year-olds scored 44 points lower than their white peers.  At 13, the gap was 39 points.  At 17, the gap was 53 points.
* In math, Hispanic nine-year-olds scored 23 points lower than their white peers.  At 12, the gap was 35 points.  At 17, the gap was 33 points.
* The reading gap between African-American and white 13 year-olds was 21 points in 1990.  It is 21 points in 2008.
* The reading gap between Hispanic and white 13-year-olds was 24 points in 1990.  Today, it is 26 points.
* The math gap between African-American and white 13-year-olds was 27 points in 1990.  It is 28 points today.
* The math gap between Hispanic and white 13-year-olds was 22 points in 1990.  Today, it is 23 points.
It is not all doom and gloom, however.  According to the latest NAEP numbers, we are making real progress in reading instruction.  Since 2004, student reading achievement has increased in all three age brackets.  This is particularly true in the elementary grades, where performance among all groups of students (African-American, Hispanic, and low-income included) increased significantly.  
Why the difference in elementary school reading, the sort of difference that could put a smile on even the most curmudgeonly of education reformers?  We might not want to say it out loud, but some may actually want to consider that Reading First and our emphasis on scientifically based reading instruction has actually worked.  For those nine-year-olds tested under NAEP, SBRR is the only form of reading instruction they have ever known.  Their instruction and their teachers’ professional development has been evidence based and rooted in our strongest scientific principles.  We have applied what works in their classrooms, and used scientific measures to determine instruction, PD, and resource acquisition.  We’ve let the research chart the path, and now we’re arriving at the destination.  Reading scores are up, and they are up in a way far more significant than we have seen in past years.  The only significant change to the process or variable in the formula between 2004 and now is the successful implementation of SBRR.
The only logical conclusion from this is that SBRR, and Reading First, actually work.  We focused our dollars and our efforts on teaching children in the elementary grades to read with scientifically based reading instruction.  We’ve hemmed and hawed and questioned and doubted for years now about the effects.  But if one looks at the Long-Term NAEP trends, the only logical conclusion one can make, at least looking at the recent gains on elementary reading scores, is that SBRR works.  And the drop-offs in reading achievement gains in the later grades only speak to a greater need to expand the reach of SBRR and fund and implement scientifically based reading programs in our middle and secondary grades as well.
But these positive outcomes for elementary school reading (and don’t let anyone fool you, they are indeed positive outcomes) still can’t mask the far greater concerns raised by these NAEP scores.  The achievement gap is still staggering, and we seem to have made no effort in closing such gaps over the last two decades.  If we look at our middle schoolers, white students are scoring nearly 25 percent higher on math and reading tests than their African-American and Hispanic friends.  For African-American and Hispanic students, the achievement gap seems to grow over the years, and is at its worst in high school.
What is particularly frightening about the achievement gap among 17-year-olds is what it doesn’t include.  For instance, among 17-year-old African American students, the reading achievement gap is 53 points.  That’s among those students who are still in high school at age 17.  What about those who have dropped out between ninth and 11th grades?  Are we to honestly believe that those students who choose dropping out as an option do so as reading and math proficient learners?  In our urban centers, where drop-out rates reach near 50 percent, what does it tell us that the learning gap is 50 points JUST FOR THOSE REMAINING IN SCHOOL?  We can’t possibly believe that the achievement gap is getting better.  This should be a huge warning sign that, despite the best of intentions, our achievement gap is only getting worse.
The headlines touting American students are making gains in reading math are reason to smile, particularly when we look at those elementary school reading performance numbers.  But the stark, disturbing data regarding the achievement gap makes crystal clear that the achievement gap is not a temporary problem nor is it an issue that simply mandates a band-aid solution or will heal itself.  We’ve been talking about the gap for more than a quarter century, but we’ve made little progress in identifying a real solution.
When it comes to public education in the United States, the achievement gap is public enemy number one.  It denies a real chance to far too many students.  It strengthens a culture of educational have and have nots.  It puts huge cracks and gaps in our pipelines to both postsecondary education and economic success.  And it demonstrates that true equality in education and opportunity remains little more than an urban legend for far, far too many children across the United States.
We need to do better, and we must do better.  We are still competing in a great race to mediocracy, not to the top.  Hopefully, we can use these numbers to make specific improvements to how we teach and how we learn.  Hopefully, we can use these numbers to see that SBRR works, and we need to extend it into the middle and secondary grades to improve reading achievement scores, particularly with African-American and Hispanic students.  And hopefully we will realize the status quo simply cannot stand, and we must take real, strong, and measurable actions to improve the quality and impact of instruction, particularly with historically disadvantaged student populations.
Yes, we are making progress.  But we still have a long way to go before we can truly celebrate student achievement on the NAEP.  Accepting the achievement gap as a way of life is accepting that a quarter of our young people don’t have access to the pathways of success.  That’s a future that none of us should be willing to
accept.  These numbers should be a clarion call to our states and districts about the need to ensure every dime of available education dollars is going to reach those students most in need.  We need to stop talking about delivering the minimum, as required under the law, and focus on providing the best, particularly for the minority and low-income students who are the victims of the achievement gap.  We need to break the cycle, and remove skin color and wallet size as factors in learning and student success.   

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