Nation’s Report Card Reveals Declining Math Scores, But Is There Room for Optimism?

With the release of the Nation’s Report Card, questions have arisen about the effectiveness of educational reforms such as No Child Left Behind, Common Core, and Race to the Top — and about how math is being taught in schools.

This October, the National Center for Education Statistics released the Nation’s Report Card — and educators, administrators, and parents found the results more troubling than they’d expected.

For the first time since 1990, when the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) exams were initially administered biannually to fourth- and eighth-graders nationwide, the Nation’s Report Card revealed that scores in math and reading had declined. Specifically, on average, eighth-graders scored two points lower in both subjects than they had in 2013. Fourth-graders scored one point lower in math, while staying the same in reading.

No Gains, Some Declines

Such few points may not seem reason enough to be upset, but two factors are informing people’s concerns. First, overall growth in test scores has been consistently incremental since the early 1990s, usually creeping up a point or two, or staying stagnant. Second, the scores aren’t fantastic to start with; only 40 percent of fourth-graders and 33 percent of eighth-graders scored high enough in math to be considered proficient; 36 percent of fourth-graders and 34 percent of eighth-graders scored high enough to be considered proficient in reading.

This marks the first time the scores have actually decreased. Depending on how various factions feel about educational reforms enacted over the past two decades, including No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top (the latter a federal incentive to get states to adopt Common Core, since those standards are decided and overseen at the state level, though the federal government has been eager to embrace it), these are likely to draw blame. In turn, detractors are likely to argue in favor of eradicating or reconceiving of reforms, whereas supporters are likely to advocate for more time so that the initiatives may succeed.

Outgoing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledged the scores weren’t good, but attributed them to growing pains as states adjust to new Common Core standards.

“Big change never happens overnight,” said Duncan, as reported by the Washington Post. “I’m confident that over the next decade, if we stay committed to this change, we will see historic improvements.”

Sign that Reforms Aren’t Working

Duncan’s critics, though, aren’t buying it.

“Considering that the rationale for the Common Core State Standards initiative was low NAEP proficiency rates, it would appear that the solution of tough standards and tough tests is not the great path forward after all,” Carol Burris, a former New York principal and head of the Network for Public Education, a nonprofit dedicated to improving public schools, wrote in an editorial for the Post. “For those who say it is too early to use NAEP to judge the Common Core, I would remind them that in 2013, Education Secretary Arne Duncan used NAEP increases to do a victory dance about the states that had already implemented the Core at that time — and I never heard any reformer complain.”

Author and education historian Diane Ravitch, who was assistant education secretary under President George H.W. Bush and cofounder of the Network of Public Education, also pointed to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, programs implemented by the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as culprits for declining student performance.

“The best single word to describe NAEP 2015 is stagnation,” Ravitch wrote on her blog. “Contrary to President George W. Bush’s law, many children have been left behind by the strategy of test-and-punish. Contrary to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, the mindless reliance on standardized testing has not brought us closer to some mythical ‘Top.’”

As the dust has settled on the scores in the past month, though, it appears that legislators are agreeing with the critics, at least on NCLB and Race to the Top.

On November 19, members of the House and Senate came up with an agreement called the Every Student Succeeds Act, which amends NCLB by giving much of that program’s federal power back to the states. The act’s authors — Reps. John Kline, R-Minn., Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash. — hope to bring it to the floor in both houses of Congress in December. Whether it will pass through both houses is uncertain, as is the question of whether President Obama will approve it.

There is at least one sign that the president will sign the bill, if passed, into law. Just days before NAEP results were released, Obama announced his support for cutting back on the time that public-school children spend taking standardized tests, so some have taken that as the president’s tacit agreement that federal reforms haven’t been working.

Adjustments Needed, Room for Optimism

Lucille Davy, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP, is urging everyone to keep the recent test results in perspective, however.

“It’s just one set of results on a single administration of a test,” she said. “And I think people will be analyzing and looking at some of the reports that have been done regarding the alignment between the NAEP framework and the college and career ready standards that pretty much every state in the country has put in place.”

As for the dip in scores, Davy acknowledges that there are adjustments to be made, but overall, she is optimistic: “I really believe that right now the country is in a period of transition around college and career ready expectations for all students. It requires different teaching, and higher expectations for students,” she said. “I think if you look at the scores over time, the scores are still significantly higher than they were, particularly for children of color, and low-income children — they’ve done very well over a period of years.”

As for math scores taking the bigger dip, “I think there’s no question that we are making a big shift in mathematics, particularly, across the country,” Davy said. “Until a few years ago, we were quite content to keep [math lessons] to rote procedures. It’s the way most of us adults learned. Basically, we learned the formula, we learned the process, and we used that for every problem that looked like that. The new standards really require a different approach to that. They really require that the children learn for understanding.”

Some NAEP critics have blamed the lower math exam score on the testing of concepts that have not been covered by new Common Core curricula. The fact that some of the exams were administered on computers, as opposed to on paper, has also been considered a reason for the decrease.

“The jury is still out,” said Davy, on whether the 2017 NAEP will be adapted to Common Core. As for students being tested in a different way, and possibly having trouble with technology, “I think these things need to be looked at.”

But Davy is, above all, certain that telling kids they can succeed while still having higher expectations, and trying a concept-oriented approach like that of the Common Core, will bring results.

“Taught differently, children can do all kinds of things,” she said, adding that she has observed students succeed in reform-practicing classrooms. “It’s inspiring, and it’s very encouraging to me.”

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