2014: The year of universal proficiency

Each State shall establish a timeline for adequate yearly progress. The timeline shall ensure that not later than 12 years after the end of the 2001–2002 school year, all students in each group described in subparagraph (C)(v) will meet or exceed the State’s proficient level of academic achievement

– No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, section 1111(2)(F)

Those of us who fail to heed the lessons of history are destined to repeat it. So let us take this moment, as we enter the New Year, to remember the hubris that caused reformers, policy elites, members of Congress, and the George W. Bush Administration to set the goal of attaining “universal proficiency” in reading and math by 2014.

The next time someone says that we must ensure that all students are college and career ready…remember “universal proficiency by 2014.”

The next time someone says that we must place a highly effective teacher in every classroom…remember “universal proficiency by 2014.”

The next time someone says that we must eradicate childhood poverty...remember “universal proficiency by 2014.”

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No, we did not achieve universal proficiency by 2014. But that doesn’t mean that students haven’t benefited from the law and its associated reforms. Using results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, let’s look at the NCLB generation—the first group of children who entered school after the law’s enactment. (These students are high school juniors today.)

In 2007, when these kids were fourth graders,

  • Reading scores for the lowest-performing students and for black and Hispanic students all shot up four points (almost half a grade) over 2002’s baseline and
  • Math scores went up a whopping five points for all students, for white students, and for Hispanic students over a 2003 baseline, and black scores rocketed an incredible six points.

And in 2011, as eighth graders,

  • Reading scores for the lowest-performing students and for black students shot up four points over 2007’s baseline, while Hispanic students gained five points, and
  • Math scores were up three points over 2007, with Hispanic students gaining five points; yet,
  • Just a third of the NCLB Generation had become proficient readers by the eighth grade. For Blacks and Hispanics, it was 15 and 19 percent, respectively. The results for mathematics were just a few points higher.

What to think of these trends? One might call them painfully incremental—not nearly aggressive enough to provide significant new opportunities for the vast majority our most disadvantaged students, who aren’t going to be anywhere near college and career ready by the time they graduate from high school next year. Or one might call them promising, heading in the right direction—and an indication of life-changing circumstances for some of the children represented by these numbers. All of which would be true.

My take is that these big jumps in achievement—amounting to about half a year of extra learning, on average—are worth celebrating. The “Most Disadvantaged Children Reading and Doing Math Half a Grade Ahead of Where They Otherwise Would” Act doesn’t have a great ring to it. But in a big country like ours, with a calcified school system and a lot of countervailing forces, these “incremental” gains are nothing to sneeze at.

We should remember this as we set goals for the future. Perhaps there’s a benefit from soaring, aspirational rhetoric (JFK didn’t propose for us to get three-quarters of the way to the moon), but let’s not mistake the rhetoric for the minutia of policy. (JFK also didn’t propose something impossible, like landing on Mars in ten years.) Rather than saying, “It would be nice if all students reached a high standard of learning,” let us ask, “What can schools be realistically expected to achieve, considering the challenges they and their students face?” Let’s set stretch goals—but not ones that are impossible to achieve, for that only sows the seeds of cynicism and despair.

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I put this challenge to Matt Chingos, a fellow at the Brookings Institution: Could we find an empirical way to set goals? Could we figure out how big a distance there is between our current results and what's reasonably (but aggressively) possible or if all schools were providing a consistently strong education to their students? What if all states, for instance, were doing well as Massachusetts (though with their own demographics)? Here was his back-of-the-envelope solution:

I took 2011 eighth-grade math NAEP scores. The national average is 284. If I take a weighted average of NAEP scores by race (using each group’s share of the public school population as weights), I get 283.

If I take Massachusetts NAEP data by race and average them using the national racial breakdowns, I get 292. What this tells you is that if black kids in the U.S. did as well as black kids in Massachusetts, white kids in the U.S. did as well as white kids in Massachusetts, etc., then the U.S. would have a NAEP score for eighth-grade math that was nine points higher than it is (the difference between 283 and 292).

So here’s a modest proposal: Let’s aim to get to 292 within six years. That would be an incredible accomplishment—reaching Massachusetts-level math achievement for the country as a whole. Still, let’s be clear: Just half of the Bay State’s eighth graders are proficient in math; the numbers for minority and low-income students are much, much lower. Even big gains leave us far from “universal proficiency”—much less “universal college and career readiness.”

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Schools nationwide have been labeled as failures for not getting 100 percent of their students to proficiency. Many of these schools contributed to the nationwide progress that’s discernable on NAEP. Such schools deserve our praise, not our scorn. And they deserve wiser policymaking going forward. Shall we make it a resolution?

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