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Meager Gains on NAEP Reading Assessments

Dear Deborah,

In my book I argue that No Child Left Behind was a failed strategy. We both know the reasons why. It narrowed the curriculum; it introduced a culture of testing and test prepping into the nation's schools; it represented an unprecedented extension of federal control into the nation's schools; it required teaching to what are admittedly inadequate tests; it demanded an unrealistic goal of 100 percent proficiency for all children in all groups; it encouraged states to inflate their scores; it promoted cheating and gaming the system; and it harmed public education because no state was able to reach the law's utopian goal.

I further argued, based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data from 2003 onward, that NCLB did not even produce significantly higher test scores. The gains in math and in 4th grade reading were significant, but not as large as the gains recorded prior to implementation of NCLB. If so much time and money was invested in these subjects, why did the rate of improvement slow down?

Now the NAEP reading scores for 2009 are out, and the news for NCLB is bad. Reading scores in 4th grade were unchanged since 2007 and up by 1 point in 8th grade. The report says in large type that the 1-point increase from 2007 to 2009 is significant, but the graph shows that student scores for this grade are exactly the same as they were in 1998. The scale score in 1998 was 264. The scale score in 2009 was 264. These are the NCLB babies. This is the generation that has been tested every year since 3rd grade. Their scores are no higher today than their counterparts in 1998.

Looking more closely at 8th grade reading scores, we can take some solace in knowing that the scores of white students are up 1 point since 2003, when NCLB testing began; that black scores are up 3 points; that Hispanic score are up 4 points; and that Asian students are up 4 points. But these are not the gains we should have expected from the nation's multi-billion-dollar investment in testing and test prep, not what we were promised or expected. From 1994 to 1998—only four years, not the six from 2003-2009—black students' scores jumped by 7 points, but we have not seen that rate of improvement since NCLB became the law of the land.

At the state level, the results are underwhelming: Seven states saw gains since 2003 (Alaska, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania), as did the District of Columbia. Three states saw a significant decline since 2003 (Iowa, Mississippi, and West Virginia). The other 40 states saw no change at all in the scores of their 8th grade students. Texas (remember the "Texas miracle"?) has seen no change in its NAEP scores for 8th grade since 1998. Tennessee, which has been using value-added assessment for many years, has seen no significant improvement since 1998.

I know your dislike of tests. NAEP is the only test to which I give any credence because it is a no-stakes test. No one can prepare for it, and no one knows which students will take it. No teacher gets paid more or less depending on NAEP scores. No student ever sees his or her scores.

When will our elected officials wake up and realize how little has been gained from our nation's heavy investment in a strategy of "measure and punish"? And more important, how much has been lost?


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