Which school do you want to support?
Each year, a statistically rigorous sample of 4th and 8th graders takes tests that help create the “Nation’s Report Card.” (Hardly any education insider will actually call it that. The tests are called by their formal name, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. It's pronounced "nape," and the results are called "NAEP scores." So now you know.)
Very few children actually take the NAEP tests.
Very few children actually take the NAEP tests. These are not the same tests that all students are required to take each year. The purpose of the NAEP is narrower: to provide statistically meaningful data in a way that is consistent from place to place and from year to year. The scores, though imperfect, enable researchers and policymakers to compare student achievement between states, grades and subgroups.
NAEP scores don't tend to change quickly, and on the whole California's children tend to score relatively poorly on these tests. The chart below shows the overall rate at which children in each state have scored "proficient" or better over time. (It averages fourth and eighth grade math and reading scores.)
Unfortunately for California kids, these proficiency rates appear to matter. According to Stanford education researcher Caroline Hoxby, a ten-point difference in NAEP "scale" scores is roughly equivalent to a third of a year of educational attainment. By this measure, California’s students score close to a year behind those in Massachusetts.
Perhaps these tests aren’t quite fair to California students. For example in 2013, the design of the NAEP test differed quite a bit from the state test California used at the time, but the Massachusetts test design was closer. Perhaps other states cheat a little, for example by providing extra testing time to English learners, or exempting students that are so new to English that they would bomb the test (Texas does that.) There are reasons not to take small differences too seriously. Anyway, maybe tests don’t tell the whole story. (The bigger picture of what constitutes success is explored in the chapter on “Success.”)
California’s children are not within quibbling distance of the skills of children elsewhere in the country.
These quibbles miss the point. The fourth grade reading assessment evaluates whether children can read short passages and understand them. California’s children are not within quibbling distance of the skills of children elsewhere in the country. The differences are statistically significant.
Does it matter if California children start off slowly, one might ask, so long as they catch up later? Unfortunately, they don’t. For many years, research has shown that children not reading at grade level by the end of third grade are at serious risk of never graduating from high school. California’s 8th grade NAEP reading scores remain consistently among the worst in the nation. [Note: Flash support is required to view interactive data on NCES; see below for a summary of 2015 state rankings.]
Are poor results somehow better for California, or for kids, if they can be “explained...?”
Could California’s awful results be explained by demographics, some ask? This question begs another in return: should it matter? Are poor results somehow better for California, or for kids, if they can be "explained" by the state’s larger numbers of non-white children and children in poverty? The children in our schools grow up to become the workers and leaders of our communities. If we want California to have a bright future, can we afford to accept demographics as an excuse for bad scores?
In any case, the data leave no room for denial. California’s children in poverty generally score behind those in other states, as do California's Latino students. But the rest of California's children aren't exactly leading the parade, either.
Is there someone to blame? Is there a villain in this tale? Is it the fault of the students themselves, or their parents? Or perhaps lawmakers, or unions, or voters, or teachers, or administrators, or the courts? Or perhaps teacher training systems, or textbooks, or the health system? Is it because California is too big? As you read Ed100, a few themes will emerge. California's education system is massive, but education is personal. Easy answers are tempting, but usually wrong. For education to work well, many things have to work well at the same time.
You are reading Ed100 because you want to do something about these facts. There are many approaches. But first, let’s broaden the context a bit. The next lesson examines how California compares to the world.
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