Despite important, but rarely noted criticisms like test-takers’ weak incentives to give maximum effort, the periodic National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is widely referred to as the Nation’s Report Card. The recently reported 2015 results are an interesting lesson in boosterism, obfuscation, and handwringing. Handwringing resulted from the decline in score overall, and the still terribly low proficiency levels. Those are not NAEP numbers an outgoing administration will want to cite as a legacy of frenzied effort and unprecedented federal spending on K-12 education.
Only Massachusetts (MA) has more than 50% (51%) of its 8th-graders proficient in math. I’ll focus on the math scores because, overall, those 8th grade NAEP scores are better than the reading scores. The national average 8th grade reading score is 264/500 (52.8%); 274/500 (54.8%) for MA. The national average 8th grade math score is 281/500 (56.2%); 297/500 (59.4%) for MA. Notice the small difference between the USA and MA scores, and the low level of both. The same thing is true internationally: #1 scores are at a low absolute level, and aren’t much above the average. Internationally, and within the USA, the best are still pretty bad.
When I assign grades to my students, between 50% and 60% is a ‘D’ or an ‘F’. Perhaps wishing not to fail everyone, Education Week’s 2016 Quality Counts gives Massachusetts a ‘B’ for an average score of 59.4% and proficiency at 51%. By the way, if you’re wondering why I’m discussing 8th grade results rather than the scores of the school system’s (NAEP scores include private schools) final product – which I would prefer to do – the answer is that the even more terrifying NAEP scores for children older than 8th grade are not broken down by state. For older children, only national numbers are available, giving states room to deny that things are that bad in their states.
Since Education Week’s 2016 Quality Counts reports all of the numbers that are the basis for their assessments (you can decide what a 297/500 score or 51% proficiency means), I will not accuse Education Week of boosterism. To check for that, I decided to look at some Massachusetts sources. Sure enough, the Boston Globe chose feel-good boosterism over the appropriate journalistic integrity. In an article entitled “Massachusetts Again Tops National Test Student Achievement,” the Globe made no mention of actual scores or proficiency rates. The article only reported the differences between the 2015 NAEP scores for Boston and Massachusetts and past scores, scores in neighboring states, and the national average. I’m sure the Boston Globe and other sources obfuscated reality with the best of intentions, and we know that the path to you-know-where is paved with good intentions.