Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Tuesday soft-pedaled the “not great news” that scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (i.e., the “nation’s report card”) declined this year for the first time since 1990. We once hoped that education would be a bright spot of the Obama Presidency, but it appears that student learning has stalled.
The Administration says the discouraging results on the NAEP exam, which tests a representative sample of students every two years in all 50 states, may be a blip. Perhaps, but the retrogression is troubling. Math proficiency in the fourth and eighth grades slipped two percentage points nationwide to 40% and 33% of students, respectively. Average scores fell across the board save for fourth-grade reading where progress was flat. Since 2007 fourth- and eighth-grade math, and fourth-grade reading, scores have plateaued.
Mr. Duncan says one culprit might be that schools are adjusting to new Common Core standards. Yet in 2013 he attributed modest gains in Michigan and seven other states to early implementation of Common Core. The handful of states that haven’t adopted Common Core have also sunk or are treading water.
Teachers union chief Randi Weingarten used the results to lambaste “high-stakes testing” inaugurated under No Child Left Behind, which aimed for 100% proficiency by 2014. Yet that law long ago became toothless thanks to Mr. Duncan’s waivers.
The recent academic stagnation also stands in marked contrast to the significant progress during the Bush years. Between 2000 and 2007, fourth grade math scores increased by 15 points on a scale of 0 to 500. Fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math scores rose by eight points.
Perhaps what’s most depressing about the latest results is that progress has ceased even in education reform leaders like Tennessee, Indiana and Florida that have loosened teacher tenure protections and expanded school choice. Yet this may be evidence that a falling tide can strand all boats.
One of the few exceptions this year was Chicago where eighth-grade proficiency in math increased to 25% from 20%. Over the last two years Chicago has closed its achievement gap with other large public city school districts. Mayor Rahm Emanuel deserves credit for expanding charter schools as well as imposing a longer school day and more rigorous teacher evaluations.
Cleveland’s school district has also made modest strides. In 2012 Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed a law allowing the district to base teacher layoffs on performance rather than seniority. The law also rewarded highly rated teachers with better pay.
Mr. Duncan, who is leaving in December, last week gave unions a parting gift by proposing to cap standardized testing at 2% of classroom time. Yet it’s possible that the anti-testing fever that has swept the nation in the last two years may have contributed to the lousy NAEP results.
GOP presidential candidates like Jeb Bush and Mr. Kasich have helped turn around their state school systems by promoting more accountability and choice. The goal of a Republican Administration should be to do the same nationally.
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