Heartbreak on NAEP

Unfortunately, the rumors, predictions, and surmises were correct: Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are mostly down or flat. The worst news came in eighth-grade math, where twenty-two states saw declines. One of the only bright spots is fourth-grade reading, where ten states (as well as Washington, D.C., Boston, Chicago, and Cleveland) posted gains.

Why this happened will be combed over and argued. So far, it feels like anyone’s guess (more on that below). But there’s no denying that it’s bad news. It had come to seem like NAEP scores would always go up, at least over the long term, just like it had come to seem like murder rates would always go down. Now the real world has intervened to remind us that social progress is not inevitable. Let’s not sugarcoat it: This is deeply disheartening for our country, our K–12 system, and especially our kids.

As our friends in the research community like to remind us, it’s impossible to draw causal connections from changes in NAEP data; doing so is “misNAEPery.” Yet we can’t help but search for explanations. And we can certainly float hypotheses about the trends—educated guesses that can then be tested using more rigorous methods (like these).

What might be going on? It could certainly be something happening inside our schools. Maybe the transition to the Common Core is causing disruption and growing pains (or worse), and those are reflected in these data. Maybe the political debate over standards, testing, and teacher evaluations has caused uncertainty in the classroom or discouraged kids from trying as hard. Maybe Arne Duncan’s waivers relieved the pressure on schools to boost achievement, and they consequently took their foot off the gas. Some states will explain that they altered the portions of English language learners and students with special needs who were excused from NAEP testing. All plausible.

But it’s also plausible that these trends reflect something going on outside of schools—namely, the economic condition of our country and our communities. As I argued the other day, the Great Recession and its aftermath could have acted as a stiff headwind. As schools face more challenging demographics—partly because of the decades-long surge in immigration, but also because of the economic dislocation facing many students and their families—they have to work harder just to stand still.

Do the data bear this out? Looking at state-level differences, my read is…not really. Perhaps Nevada, Rhode Island, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Kentucky can blame the recession. But it’s fair to ask why the bad economy didn’t knock Georgia, Michigan, Indiana, Alabama, or Arizona off-course. And North Dakota and Texas had better find another excuse for their test score drops.

Trends in median family income versus eighth-grade mathematics scores
(Change in family median income in parentheses)

* Data are from Kids Count; I then used the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s inflation adjuster calculator to determine inflation-adjusted income. I considered the area between -2% and +2% to be flat.

Some are already using these results to attack education reforms, including Common Core, charter schools, vouchers, teacher evaluations, and anything else they don’t like. And in fairness, some reformers would have committed misNAEPery to bolster their arguments had the trends gone in the other direction. The most honest approach today is to urge patience—to reserve judgment until more sophisticated analyses emerge and wait for 2017 to see if these numbers are a one-time blip or the beginning of a disturbing trend. We certainly don’t have enough information now to justify a major change of course. But that day may yet come.


Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.