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Secretary Duncan Links Federal Race to Top Investments to NAEP Gains

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is spinning the new NAEP results as a payoff for the Race to the Top program, even though not every state that received money under the federal competition soared on the "nation's report card."

In a conference call with reporters the day before Thursday's results came out, Duncan commended what he called the "encouraging but modest" results, which show progress in math and reading in 8th grade, but only in math in 4th grade. (See our story for full results.) And despite experts' urgings not to use NAEP to establish causation between policies and results, Duncan suggested that the results vindicate his department's investments in states.

Duncan pointed out that three of the jurisdictions with the biggest improvements in the last two years—the District of Columbia, Tennessee, and Hawaii—were early Race to the Top winners. (Since 2011, Tennessee and the District of Columbia produced score increases of 4 points or more in math and reading at the 4th and 8th grades. Hawaii gained 3 points in 8th grade reading, 4 points each in 8th grade math and 4th grade math, and stayed flat in 4th grade reading.)

"Tennessee, D.C. and Hawaii have done some really tough, hard work and it's showing some pretty remarkable dividends," he said. "Lots of folks sort of scoffed when we invested in Hawaii through Race to the Top. People thought that that was a loser, that Hawaii could never do anything. ... Hawaii, to their tremendous credit, has proved a lot of skeptics wrong."

Of the 12 early Race to the Top winners, however, only six—Delaware, Tennessee, New York, Florida, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia—produced statistically significant gains on the NAEP since 2011, according to the NCES data.

States that "knocked the ball out of the park this go-round" have done "very difficult and courageous work," Duncan said. "The flip side of courage would be folks who are more timid, and where people are more timid, you're seeing less movement, less progress, stagnant flat line or even some states are going south a little bit."

The secretary also linked adoption of the common core—expectations his administration has trumpeted from coast to coast—to NAEP gains in eight states in one or more grades or subject areas since 2009. He named Kentucky, Delaware, Georgia, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi and North Carolina, even though nearly every state in the country had adopted the new standards two years before the 2013 NAEP was administered. Of the eight, only three—Delaware, Maine and Minnesota—saw statistically significant gains in at least one grade level or subject since 2011, the last time the tests were given.

Pressed to say how national gains of barely 1 point on a 500-point scale in three of the four subject areas was a victory for billions of dollars in federal investment, Duncan noted only that "scores actually went up across the board," and that the federal stimulus money saved many teachers' jobs.

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