In many ways, yesterday reflected the good, the bad, and the promising with regard to educational improvement and student achievement data. On the positive front, in New Jersey, a NIEER-led study found that students who participated in high-quality early childhood education programs outperformed those who were not exposed to similar preK efforts. On the negative, Maryland’s Abell Foundation found the state’s secondary mathematics curriculum to be lacking. And then we have the new NAEP data, which shows a narrowing of the achievement gap, particularly in the lower grades.
Individually, the data tell very specific stories. Collectively, though, there is much room for interpretation. Those with rose-colored glasses will see that student achievement is on the rise, we are making improvements, and continued and increased investment in key areas will only help continue the trend. The cynics will note the data show we are starting strong, but between both Maryland and NAEP, we are failing to truly kick into gear as we head to the finish line when it comes to K-12 improvement.
In my discussions with some experts on the range of data yesterday, Eduflack heard a very interesting observation with regard to the Jersey data, but which is applicable to all. Many are trumpeting the NIEER study as proof positive that preK is the solution to all of our struggles. But this expert observed that New Jersey does not have a P-6 problem, it has a K-12 problem. PreK may be helping students start off on the right foot, but something happens during their journey to take them off track. By the time middle school sets in, the gains and advances are long forgotten. And by the time many of those students become high schoolers (if they choose to remain in secondary school) they are risk becoming nothing but a statistic of what could have been.
The NAEP data seems to tell a similar tale. Over the last decade, we have collectively invested significantly in closing the achievement gap in the lower grades. Setting fourth grade reading and math as our goal, we have worked hard to lift all boats, recognizing that improved instruction, teacher quality, assessments, and accountability would help all students. Increased dollars for Title I schools and classrooms at risk were expected to give an even larger boost to those students from historically disadvantaged groups, thus starting to close the dreaded achievement gap.
So what does the data tell us? We are starting to make real inroads in closing the elementary school achievement gap, with both fourth grade math and reading proficiency gaps closing by five points nationally. (Though the 26-point gap in math and 27-point gap in firth grade reading are still very disturbing.)
But what happens when we move four years forward to eighth grade? By the end of middle school, those gaps remain large. The eighth grade math gap stands at 31, closing only two points in nearly two decades. The reading gap is slightly better — only 26 points — but it has only closed three points in 15 years.
Why is this important? We like to believe that providing strong building blocks early in the educational process will result in a lifetime of benefits. Yet when we look at these new NAEP numbers, we see that the math achievement gap grows over a student’s career, while the reading achievement gap remains flat. We may be starting strong, but at the halfway point of the race, we’re starting to lose a step or two. And if the long-term NAEP data released earlier this year is any indication, by the time we get to the end of our K-12 experience, the gap has widened and our historically disadvantaged students are huffin’ and puffin’ as others cross the finish line.
Then there is the trickle-down effect. The math achievement gap in 8th grade has direct impact on science achievement for all students. The reading gap affects history and other social science classes. Even if we aren’t measuring student performance (at least not through AYP), reading and math performance has a direct impact on total student learning. Those students who are struggling to read in eighth grade are likely struggling in all of their subjects. Those students who have difficulty with may are likely having the same issues in the sciences and other subjects that are seen as “must knows” for success in today’s economy.
What are our takeaways? First, the gains in the elementary grades lend credibility to the ongoing push for greater accountability in school improvement. We’ve focused our efforts on the early grades, and we are starting to see the impact. Test scores are rising, achievement gap is closing. That’s a good thing.
But the real challenge is how we continue the trend. How do we extend elementary school progress into the middle and secondary grades? How do we replicate (and measure) student performance in math and reading in other core academic subjects? As we identify the interventions that are working for our younger learners, how do we replicate and accelerate such interventions in the later grades?
Yes, our questions continue to mount. We talk a great game about innovation and school improvement, but we are still scoring an incomplete when it comes to our final scores. We are starting to ID what works … and what doesn’t. We are prioritizing student performance, data collection, assessment, and accountability. We are talking about moving away from the status quo “solutions” that have had little impact and are focusing the improvements and innovations that are proven effective (including the increased investment in teacher quality).
We should celebrate the progress that is made in the early grades and the impact that high-quality preK is having on student performance in those early grades. But if we are going to truly, really, meaningfully address that K-12 problem, we need to broaden our view beyond elementary school. Success is ultimately measured at the finish line. That means high school diplomas, 17-year-old NAEP, and the knowledge and skills displayed by high school graduates. Anything short of that is simply missed opportunity, unmet expectations, and what could have been.