NAEP Geography: Our schools??? secret success

Here’s a new problem facing American education policy:
Something we’re doing seems to be working.

You wouldn’t know it from the “we’re all going to hell in a hand
” rhetoric surrounding today’s education debates, but the last
fifteen years have seen tremendous progress for poor, minority, and
low-achieving students—the very children who have been the focus of two
decades of reform. Curiously, both sides of the education battle want to sweep
this news under the carpet.

students learning photo

Poor and minority students are learning
(Photo by Star for Life 19)

First the facts: In both the “basic skills” of reading and
math, and in the social-studies subjects of history, civics, and now geography,
African American, Latino, and low-income fourth and eighth graders have posted
huge gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) since the
early 1990s. For instance, between 1990 and 2009, black fourth graders made 35
points of progress on the mathematics NAEP exam; black eighth graders gained 24
points. The corresponding numbers for Latino children were 28 and 21 points,
respectively. In reading, black fourth graders gained 13 points between 1992
and 2009; black eighth graders gained 9 points. In the just-released geography
exam, black fourth-grade students gained 27 points between 1994 and 2010; Latino
fourth graders gained 21 points. Similar progress was seen in history and

To put this in perspective, 10 points is roughly equivalent
to a grade level on the NAEP. So today’s poor and minority students are
achieving one, two, and sometimes three grade levels higher than their
counterparts were in the early 1990s.

To be fair, these gains have not been carried through to the
twelfth grade. (Nobody knows why that is, but it’s likely that today’s
seventeen-year-olds aren’t making much effort on the NAEP, a no-stakes test.)

Furthermore, achievement gaps aren’t necessarily closing, or
closing very fast. But that’s because white and middle-class students are
making gains too—which is good news,
not bad.

So why are our poor and minority students doing so much
better? NAEP doesn’t tackle these questions, so we’re forced to speculate.
Maybe the progress is mostly due to societal trends, such as the end of the crack-cocaine
epidemic or benefits of a strong 1990s economy—both of which would have made
the home environments of our neediest children much more hospitable. Perhaps
the big increase in education spending over this time period deserves credit,
or the major reduction in class sizes.

We ought to be talking about how to accelerate our progress, not wringing our hands.


The most likely explanation, though, is the one that
everyone loves to hate: Standardized testing and the “consequential
” (in Sandy Kress’s words) that is now linked to it. As
research by Eric Hanushek, Tom Dee, Brian Jacob, and others has shown, the
“early adopter” accountability states made big gains in reading and math in the
1990s after embracing these policies, and the stragglers made big progress once
No Child Left Behind forced them to follow suit. A focus on scientifically
based reading instruction—including the now defunct Reading First
program—probably played an important role too.

And what about history, civics, and geography? Neither NCLB
nor most state accountability systems hold schools accountable for teaching
those critical subjects. Yet we’re seeing big gains nonetheless. Again, the
likeliest explanation is the simplest: Poor and minority kids are stronger
readers now, so they can better understand what the social-studies exams are
asking—and answer more questions correctly. And, more importantly, they can
access history, civics, and geography texts more confidently than before.

No, I can’t prove any of this, but these hypotheses strike
me as the most plausible. And if we accept as true that testing and
accountability are “working”—at least in improving student learning for the
neediest kids—the education-reform conversation ought to shift. We ought to be
talking about how to accelerate our progress, not wringing our hands. And we
ought to be talking about whether the benefits of testing and accountability
are worth the downsides. We ought to be talking about trade-offs.

Poor and minority kids are learning more, but there are also
allegations of rampant cheating in some school districts. Poor and minority
kids are learning more, but many of their schools are minimizing free
expression, art and music, and a sense of wonder. Poor and minority kids are
learning more, but their teachers are being asked to stick to scripted lessons
and lockstep curricular guides. Poor and minority kids are learning more, but our
highest achievers are making fewer gains.

Is it worth it?

This piece originally
(in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s
Flypaper blog. To subscribe to Flypaper,

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