Standard education test yields substandard results

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 21st of November, 2019. So glad you’ve joined us today for The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up, the nation’s report card.

Every two years the National Assessment for Educational Progress reports on student achievement across the United States. Those numbers came out at the end of October. WORLD reporter Anna Johansen joins us now to talk about what the data show.

Good morning, Anna!


REICHARD: First give us a little context on how we got these numbers.

JOHANSEN: It’s a standardized test given to almost 300,000 students across the country. It tests fourth and eighth graders on core topics. So we get a national snapshot of how students are doing, and we can see how individual states compare to each other. And there are also breakdowns based on things like ethnicity and income.

REICHARD: That national snapshot—is it good news or bad news?

JOHANSEN: It’s definitely not good news. The 2019 assessment tested reading and math. Reading scores dropped for both fourth and eighth graders. Math scores increased by 1 point for fourth graders, but decreased by 1 point for eighth graders.

REICHARD: Give us some perspective on that. What’s it mean?

JOHANSEN: That’s on a 500 point scale. Researchers say that 10 points is about a year’s worth of learning. So to see students gaining only one point—that’s a little discouraging. Overall, we’re at about the same place we were 10 years ago.

REICHARD: Do we know what’s behind this decline?

JOHANSEN: Nobody is really sure. The board that runs the tests actually says that you shouldn’t try to pin the results on any specific policy move, because it’s complicated. But people do speculate. There is one literacy professor—Tim Rasinski—and his theory is that kids spend too much time taking standardized tests and not enough time learning. I talked to one researcher named Mike Petrilli. He is speculating that these fourth and eighth graders are students who were born during the recession or grew up during the recession, so maybe we’re seeing that hardship impacting academics. But on the flip side, increased spending didn’t seem to help. The Wall Street Journal says from 2012 to 2017, so a five year period, we increased per-student spending by 15 percent. But we don’t really see any educational gains over those years.

REICHARD: Any good news?

JOHANSEN: Two bright spots. Mississippi and Washington, D.C. Both saw gains in math and in reading. Actually the highest gains since they started participating in this report.

REICHARD: What’s different about those areas?

JOHANSEN: Mississippi really focuses on early literacy. They also tailor their state tests to this national report format so their students know the standard. And D.C. has a significant number of charter schools. Those schools have more flexibility, there’s competition. Almost half of D.C. students are at charter schools now. And they’ve seen steady improvement over the past decade or so.

REICHARD: Will this report change anything?

JOHANSEN: Hopefully. Educators and researchers typically use the report to evaluate schools long term. Individual states will look at what worked in Mississippi and D.C. and maybe try to follow their lead and implement changes. I talked to Girien Salazar, he heads up the Faith and Education Coalition, and he really emphasized the need for community support. Parents and pastors especially, but really anyone can do it—go support teachers in your area, go spend an hour a week with a student, do some mentoring. That kind of micro support can make a big difference.

REICHARD: Anna Johansen is a WORLD reporter who lives in the Chicago area. Thanks, Anna!

JOHANSEN: You’re welcome, Mary!

(Photo/Creative Commons)

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