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What Does Betsy DeVos' Take on Rising Grad Rates, Stagnant Test Scores Tell Us?

American education got some good news this week—rising graduation rates—and some not-so-hot news: sluggish scores on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, or PIRLS.

On social media, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos used the PIRLS results to make the case that American education needs a shake-up. Meanwhile, her reaction to the increase in graduation rates was more subdued, especially compared to her predecessor's.

Let's start with the PIRLS: The global assessment showed that literacy rates are rising around the world, but that the U.S. is left out of the trend. U.S. 4th graders performed at an average score of 549, which was above the average of the 58 education systems participating in PIRLS in 2016, but 7 scale points lower than the last test in 2011. That's essentially the same as they did in 2006, according to my colleague, Sarah Sparks.

DeVos said those stagnant results show it's time to give the K-12 system a major makeover. That's something she advocated by highlighting innovative schools on her "Rethink Schools" tour back in September.

Those tweets are in keeping with the point DeVos made in a speech last week, in which she used the country's middling performance on the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, to argue for expanding parental choice, her favorite policy prescription and one she's had trouble selling to Congress.

However, there were also some seemingly bright results for U.S. schools this week: Graduation rates ticked up to an all-time high of 84.1 percent in the 2015-16 school year, the last year that President Barack Obama was in office.

DeVos' response on social media—which came about a day after the results were published—was positive. But it didn't exactly translate to resounding applause.

By contrast, Obama's longest-serving education secretary, Arne Duncan, made a big splash every time the graduation rate rose. And he used improving graduation rates to argue that Obama administration policies—including new resources for struggling schools, robust federal protections for disadvantaged students, and new investments in early-childhood education—had a positive impact on student achievement. Duncan wore the national graduation rate on his jersey during basketball all-star games. And the Obama White House even got into it, with Obama himself announcing last year that graduation rates had hit an all-time high for the fourth year in a row. 

At the same time that Duncan pointed to Obama policies for driving up graduation rates, however, he also said there was no link between the administration's policies—including its support for the Common Core State Standards—and falling scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation's report card.

Experts urged caution on both sides of the issue. They argued Obama and Duncan didn't necessarily deserve blame for the drop in NAEP scores—or credit for the jump in graduation rates.

"It's close to impossible to make a casual attribution about nationwide trends when so many different things are happening at once," said Brian Gill, a senior fellow at Mathematica, a policy research organization based in Princeton, N.J. in an interview last year.

And others warned that rising graduation rates may not be an indication that schools are performing better, since the bump could be the result of a drop in expectations for earning a diploma.

Still, since the Trump administration has been working to end or remake many of the Obama administration's signature programs and policies—including on civil rights enforcement—the rise in graduation rates on the previous administration's watch may have gone against the idea that American education needs a shake-up.

And while DeVos is not cheering the dismal PIRLS, it does help her make her policy argument. 

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