New U.S. test results showing a drop in students’ math performance — the first such decline since the national assessments began in 1990 — have given ammunition to critics of test-driven policies that have governed public schools for nearly 13 years.
Math scores for both 4th- and 8th-grade students fell on the 2015 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) results released this week. In reading, scores were lower for 8th-grade students and flat for 4th-graders.
“The new NAEP results simply confirm what we already knew — the current approach to education reform has not moved the needle,” said Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center, a nonprofit organization based at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
The NAEP, given about every two years to a sampling of students around the country, is highly regarded by education experts from across the ideological spectrum. Unlike state standardized tests, the content of the national assessments has stayed pretty much the same for 25 years, so educators and policymakers rely on them for a long-term view of student progress.
In math, 40 percent of 4th-graders were proficient or better in 2015, two points lower than in 2013. Among 8th-graders, 33 percent were at proficiency or above this year, also down two points. In reading, 36 percent of 4th-graders scored proficient or greater, about the same as in 2013. Among 8th graders, 34 percent were proficient or better, a two-point decline.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters in a phone call this week that the drop in scores is unsurprising, considering that U.S. students and teachers are still adjusting to the new Common Core academic standards, which most states have incorporated within the past few years. “We should expect scores in this period to bounce around some,” Duncan said. “I’m confident that if we stay committed to this change, we will see historic improvements.”
The Obama administration, in addition to pushing the new academic standards, has helped to usher in era of even more frequent state testing than what started under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. The state tests also now carry higher stakes, as they are used to evaluate teachers as well as to judge schools.
Welner and other critics say teaching and learning have suffered as a result, with schools narrowing curriculums to focus on reading and math — the primary subjects of state tests — and spending increasing amounts of instruction time on testing, and on the teaching of test-taking strategies. “It’s time to try something different,” Welner said.