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Critics blame focus on testing for drop in national math performance

Math scores decline for first time since 1990, giving ammunition to critics of schools' increased focus on testing.

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.

Welner added that although proponents of high-stakes testing say it is necessary for closing the achievement gap between white students and black and Latino students, the national scores show no recent progress in this area.

The gaps between scores of black and white students, for example, remained unchanged in 2015, except for a small narrowing of the difference in 4th-grade math due to a decline in white students’ scores.

Over the long term, the difference in scores between black and white students has grown somewhat smaller, as in 8th-grade math, where the difference gap has fallen from 40 points in 1992 to 32 in 2015. But the gap between affluent students and low-income children is virtually unchanged since it started to be measured in 2003.

Welner said that the U.S. needs to address “opportunity gaps” by giving poor children the same learning opportunities that affluent students enjoy at their schools and in outside activities.

Research shows that providing high-quality prekindergarten, individualized tutoring, small class sizes and school-based services that address students’ health and mental health needs make a difference — while ramped-up testing does not, Welner said.

“We know how to close opportunity gaps,” he said. “We’re just not willing to invest in a sustained way” to make it happen.

Jesse Hagopian, an activist, teacher and author in Seattle, said the drop in the national assessment scores should focus attention on the growing number of students living in poverty.

More than one in five school-age children, 21 percent, are from families below the poverty line, according to the 2013 figures from the National Center for Education Statistics. That is up from 15 percent in 2000 and from 17 percent in 1990.

Hagopian said those who say the current system of standardized testing is necessary to hold teachers and schools accountable want to deflect attention from the effects of growing economic inequality on families and children.

“Where’s the accountability for politicians to provide decent jobs, a minimum wage that supports families, desegregation of schools, robust bilingual programs that value the home languages?” he said. “When you’re living in [this] kind of crisis of inequality, of course it’s going to affect young people in the schools.”

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