Schooled Reporting on education

Beyond the report card

Education | Digging deeper into national standardized test results
by Laura Edghill
Posted 11/13/19, 04:05 pm

A national achievement test shows American fourth and eighth graders falling behind in reading and barely holding steady in math, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which administers the test, says public schools are making progress with some key student groups even though overall performance is lackluster.

NAEP exams, the results of which are known as the Nation’s Report Card, are given to select fourth, eighth, and 12th-grade students annually or biennially. Begun in 1969, the exams are the longest-running standardized tests of their kind, providing copious data for researchers to analyze. The recent results stem from tests administered earlier this year to nearly 100,000 fourth and eighth grade students across the country.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pointed out that the test scores showed two out of three U.S. students are not proficient readers. Fourth grade reading declined in 17 states and eighth grade reading declined in 31.

“Our children continue to fall further and further behind their international peers,” she said. “If we embrace education freedom, American students can achieve. American students can compete.”

NAEP said the overall test scores do not reflect the socioeconomic and educational factors affecting students’ performance. Students with disabilities and those still learning English comprise about 15 percent of those tested this year. Unsurprisingly, they tend to score below the national average. But the trend over the last several decades for those two groups has shown steady upward growth.

Grady Wilburn, a statistician for NAEP, said the test defines proficiency differently than many people understand it, and that leads to misconceptions about the results.

“One thing that often gets confused is that ‘proficient’ on NAEP means mastery over challenging subject matter,” Wilburn said. “It is often a higher bar than state-level testing’s ‘proficient,’ which means they are performing at grade level.” A student rated “proficient” on the NAEP exam is actually performing above grade level compared with most state assessments.

This year’s test results also showed that students in Washington, D.C., are improving, and the gap between urban school districts and the national average has narrowed. School officials in the nation’s capital celebrated their gains in both math and reading. District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee credited the 2008 implementation of universal pre-K as a reason for the success. The eighth graders who took this year’s NAEP tests were part of the first wave of students to benefit from the free citywide program.

“Many of our students are getting a strong start in their learning,” Ferebee said. The chancellor also pointed to the district’s comparatively high teacher salaries that “allow us to be competitive at a time when there’s a nationwide shortage of good teachers.”

Mississippi, a state that typically lurks near the bottom of education quality lists, also showed improvement. The state posted a 4 point average gain since the 2017 NAEP in fourth grade reading, and a 6 point gain in fourth grade math. Those gains were the highest in the nation in both testing categories.

“Our achievement is at an all-time high in Mississippi,” state Superintendent Carey Wright said. For the first time in the state’s history, fourth-graders bested the national average in math and matched it in reading. Wright pointed to the state’s heavy emphasis on early literacy as a key factor in its success.

“When you improve kids’ reading ability, it’s not surprising that kids’ math ability falls in line,” Wright said.

Associated Press/Photo by Pat Nabong/Chicago Sun-Times Associated Press/Photo by Pat Nabong/Chicago Sun-Times Striking Chicago teachers rally downtown on Oct. 31.

Chicago schools reopen

Chicago Public Schools teachers returned to their classrooms Nov. 1 after an 11-day strike. Their tentative contract contains more than $30 million in new district spending to shrink oversized classes and raise teacher pay by 16 percent over five years. The contract also features a surprise 40 percent pay raise for several groups of lower-paid workers, including teaching assistants and clerks.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat, noted the strike put many of the district’s nearly 400,000 students through hardships. Volleyball and golf athletes missed their state playoffs, and high school juniors lost their chance at qualifying for National Merit Scholarships because they were unable to take the PSAT.

To recover some of the lost instructional hours, the contract calls for the district to make up five of the strike days. School officials have yet to announce when they’ll schedule those days, but students likely will have to wait a week longer to start their summer vacation in June.

Chicago Teachers Union members will vote by secret ballot Thursday and Friday to accept or reject the proposed contract. While some teachers have stated publicly they will vote no, union leaders expect the majority of their members to approve it. —L.E.

Associated Press/Photo by Mukhtar Khan (file) Associated Press/Photo by Mukhtar Khan (file) Children study inside a local mosque building in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir

Kashmir schools stay closed

Halfway around the world in Kashmir, 1.5 million students remain out of school for the 15th straight week, with no end in sight. Long school closures have become a semi-regular occurrence in the mountainous region as India and Pakistan nurse a decades-long dispute over its control. In early August, India unilaterally revoked the special autonomy status of a portion of Kashmir, severing phone lines and internet connections. Separatist militants launched a campaign of retaliatory attacks that have severely compromised everyday freedoms like attending school.

“The long school closures in the valley are causing major disruptions in young people’s educational and professional development, producing feelings of insecurity, helplessness, and demoralization,” Haley Duschinski, an anthropologist at Ohio University specializing in Kashmir, told The New York Times.

Although all private schools and most government schools are closed, Indian government officials demand that parents send their children to school. Families continue to keep their children home, wary of violence from separatist attacks and the increased military presence of Indian soldiers in the streets. —L.E.

iStock/Wavebreakmedia iStock/Wavebreakmedia

Life-saving lesson

An Akron, Ohio, elementary school teacher received an award last month for teaching a lesson that saved a student’s life. Just two weeks after first-grade teacher Barb Fisher presented a unit on fire safety last May, 6-year-old Zhiouli Wilson became trapped in her basement during a serious house fire. Despite the confusion of flames and smoke billowing around her, the first-grader remembered her training to stay low and cover herself with a blanket.

“The firefighter that rescued her said that she saved herself by what she had learned, what we had taught,” Fisher told WEWS-TV.

Zhiouli was injured in the blaze but has since returned to school, often stopping by to give her Fisher hugs. —L.E.

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Laura Edghill

Laura is an education correspondent for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University graduate and serves as the communications director for her church. Laura resides with her husband and three sons in Clinton Township, Mich. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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    Posted: Thu, 11/14/2019 11:48 am

    Yay! Good news! Fire safety lesson saved a life.

    It's always uplifting to read good news while the world burns.

    Just in case this sounds sarcastic, it's not.

  • OldMike
    Posted: Thu, 11/14/2019 02:21 pm

    I’m with you 100%!  One Good News item like little Zhiouli escaping the fire can help with the depressed feelings we get from reading about so many crises in the world!