Last week, Eduflack opined on the recently released NAEP long-term data. From my cheap seats, the headlines were relatively simple. Our Nation’s Report Card demonstrated a couple of key points. First, Reading First during the NCLB era worked. Second, our attempts over the past two decades to close the achievement gap have not.
As is typical with these sort of issues, Eduflack has been accused of giving short shrift to the good and the positive in these data sets. I looked at the half-empty glass, instead of focusing on the gains we have made in the last decade in reading and math for white, African-American, and Hispanic students. On this point, I will concede When it comes to reading and math scores of nine-year-olds, we posted impressive gains across the board. African-American and Hispanic students made gains similar to their white counterparts. For a closer look at this side of the debate, take a look at the give-and-take between Dallas Morning News columnist Bill McKenzie and former Bush education advisor Sandy Kress here
Whether one wants to accept it or not, the data does seem to indicate that the policies introduced under No Child Left Behind and based on scientifically based research — particularly Reading First — were effective and were effective across all disaggregated groups. While some critics would say there were similar gains in the decade prior to NCLB, we must note that we not only maintained those previous advances, but we really added to them, at least when it comes to nine-year-olds.
Yes, the NAEP data shows us that, when implemented with fidelity, NCLB instructional policies worked. The law focuses on the elementary grades, and the elementary grades showed real gains in both reading and math. And they showed such gains across all demographic groups, not just with white students. That is an achievement, and is one worth noting. We have made real gains for elementary school students, and we should be in agreement as to the causes for those gains.
But I am still that glass-is-half-empty sort of guy, and I can’t shake two important takeaways I have with regard to the NAEP data. The first involves high schools and the achievement gap. I made this point last week, but it is worth emphasizing again and again and again. The reading achievement gap between African-American and white 17-year-olds remains 53 points. Did we expect to make major gains at closing the gap? No. We haven’t put in any measurable interventions to focus on the literacy crisis in our middle and high school grades. But we have to look at this data in the larger picture. We know that students, particularly those at our nation’s drop-out factories, are leaving high school in the ninth or 10th grades. We know that in many cities, up to half of African-American students are dropping out of high school, and are usually doing it as early as possible. The majority of minority students are not in high school long enough to even take the 17-year-old NAEP test. So when we talk about a 53 point achievement gap, that is AFTER all of these drop-outs have checked out. The reading performance of our most at-risk students isn’t even factored in here. This huge gap is just among those minority students who have remained in school and plan to stick around for their diplomas. Can we even fathom what the number would look like if all of those drop-outs were tested and analyzed too? We think we have a crisis now. Then, it would be a downright epidemic.
Second, the data shows that we continue to neglect both our middle and secondary school grades. Our gains are posted in the elementary years, the same academic time that NCLB focuses on and that garners the vast majority of our accountability and assessment focus. We don’t have clear expectations of the knowledge and skills are middle schoolers need before entering high school. And we certainly don’t have such expectations with regard to high school graduates. As a result, we’ve made no real gains when it comes to our middle and high schoolers.
That shouldn’t be a major surprise. For the past seven years, we have gone all in, placing all of our chips on elementary school students. Recognizing you have to start somewhere, we started with those entering the education continuum, seeking to give all new students a full chance and knowing we would have to go back and address those who have already fallen through the cracks later. From the NAEP scores, some would say the bet has paid off. The question is what we now do with our winnings. We can get up from the table, declare mission accomplished, and be satisfied with the progress we have made to date and the notion that such scientifically based instructional methods will continue for years to come. Or we can double down and use what has worked to focus on the later grades, figuring out ways to help those who have fallen through the cracks. How do we address the instructional problems in the middle and high school grades? How do we ensure our nine-year-olds build on their current gains, and don’t merely take an academic step back once they hit middle school? How do we use the building blocks we have to construct a stronger academic product for all? What do we do about the millions of kids who have fallen through those cracks and lack the basic proficiencies in middle and high school to maximize their learning experience?
In our elementary grades, we now have clear standards and clear assessments to measure against those standards. We have put in place high-quality instruction and the professional development and teacher supports necessary to deliver that instruction well and with fidelity. We’ve shown how to do it, now we just need to do it at scale. We need to apply such standards, assessments, and expectations across K-12.
At the same time, we cannot and must not lost sight of the achievement gap, even among our elementary school learners. Yes, educators are to be commended for their across-the-board gains in reading and math for nine-year-olds. We’ve shown that African-American and Hispanic students are just as capable as white students in the classroom, and can demonstrate similar success. But at this stage of the game, we have to expect far, far more. In basketball, we know that if you are down by 20 heading into the halftime, you can’t win the game simply by matching your opponent basket for basket. You need to throw up the three pointers, gaining three points for every two sunk by the opposition. That (and just downright shutting down your opponent) is the only way to put yourself in a position to win. Right now, minority and low-income students not only have little chance to win, they are still barely able to keep the game competitive.
We need to find ways to get historically disadvantaged groups back in the game here, giving them real opportunities to close the learning and achievement gaps. Holding their own is not good enough. We need to provide the resources, the opportunities,and the results to start cutting into that lead. Specific efforts to closing the achievement gap in elementary school can reap exponential results in middle and high school. If we’ve found methods that work in equipping young African-American and Hispanic students with the math and reading skills necessary for success (and the latest NAEP data indicates we have) we need to figure out ways to double or triple the impact of that instruction on such students. And we need to figure out a way to extend such instruction after those students blow out the candles on their 10th birthday cake.
Is there good to be found in th
e latest NAEP data? Absolutely. Should we be satisfied with such gains? Absolutely not. The across-the-board elementary school gains demonstrate that we don’t have to accept mediocrity Every child can succeed with effective instruction, resources, and teachers to deliver it. But too few of the students who need it the most are getting such instruction, resources, and educators. Now is not the time to bask in what has been done. Now is the time to focus on the great amount that still needs to be done.