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NAEP Score Boosts: Was It the Teaching?

Tennessee and the District of Columbia, two jurisdictions with very controversial education policy changes, particularly regarding teachers, posted the greatest overall gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the country's no-stakes, hard-to-cheat, independently administered exam. 

Some education advocates are jubilant about these results, and the Twittersverse is lighting up with lots of explanations: It was the Common Core. It was newly established teacher evaluation and feedback programs. It was the expansion of charter schools. Even the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has gotten in on the fun, reports colleague Catherine Gewertz, linking the results (unsurprisingly) with initiatives like his Race to the Top program. (Also unsuprisingly, critics of such policies have been pretty quiet about today's results.) 

These gains, let me hasten to say, are very good news whatever the cause: They mean more kids are learning more in places that have long suffered from subpar education systems. But as I cautioned earlier this summer, it is very difficult to draw direct lines between any one policy and results on NAEP. 

The NAEP data are irresistible because of their breadth, depth, and independence. Attributing gains to better teaching is a plausible explanation, especially given what we know about teachers' important impact on students' scores. 

But a caution for policy folks, advocates, and yes, reporters, everywhere: As you delve into these results, weigh other factors that might have played into the results and try to rule them out as you test various hypotheses. For example: 

  • Did state test scores follow the same trajectory as the NAEP scores? 
  • Did the demographics of schools and communities change between 2011-13? 
  • Did exclusion and accommodation rates on NAEP change significantly over that time period?
  • Are there other external evaluations suggesting that the policies in question had effects? 

Will you end up with proof points? Probably not. But there is a difference between a well-reasoned, appropriately caveated claim, and a strictly ideological one. 

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