Part 3—But also, those punishing gaps: It has to be the greatest news you’re not allowed to hear.
Over (let’s say) the past twenty years, black kids seem to have made substantial progress in reading and math.
We refer to average scores by black students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the widely-praised “gold standard” of domestic educational testing.
The NAEP is a federally-run testing program which dates, in one of its two major forms, all the way back to 1971. The NAEP has always been considered our most reliable domestic testing program, in part because it has never been a “high-stakes” test.
The nation’s journalists swear by the NAEP; educational research feeds off its voluminous data. But in a weird act of fealty to elite propaganda about our allegedly failing schools, our journalists almost never tell the public what NAEP data seem to show.
Among the things the NAEP data show are large score gains by black kids. Those large score gains may be the best news the American people aren’t permitted to hear.
The so-called “Main NAEP” is given to national samples of students in Grade 4, Grade 8 and Grade 12. In math, 1996 is the first year which permits a pure statistical comparison in this particular program.
In news you aren’t permitted to hear, this is what black students’ score gains look like in Grade 8 math:
Average scores, black students, public schoolsOver that 17-year period, average scores by black eighth-graders rose by 23.45 points on this “gold standard” testing program.
Grade 8 math, NAEP
Is that a big deal? Or is it just a statistical blip? According to a very rough rule of thumb, ten points on the NAEP scale is often compared to one academic year.
On average, did black students really record more than two years of progress in math over that 17-year span? That strikes us as very unlikely. For that reason, we always describe that ten-point rule as a very rough rule of thumb.
That said, the score gains have been quite large. In 2011, Richard Rothstein described the apparent progress in a piece for Slate. (For Rothstein's background, click here, then also click this.)
In his piece for Slate, Rothstein challenged some basic precepts of a familiar version of “education reform.” Given what we constantly hear about public schools, the highlighted passage is startling:
ROTHSTEIN (8/29/11): Central to the reformers' argument is the claim that radical change is essential because student achievement (especially for minority and disadvantaged children) has been flat or declining for decades. This is, however, false. The only consistent data on student achievement come from a federal sample, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Though you would never know it from the state of public alarm about education, the numbers show that regular public school performance has skyrocketed in the last two decades to the point that, for example, black elementary school students now have better math skills than whites had only 20 years ago...The reason test score gaps have barely narrowed is that white students have also improved, at least at the elementary and middle school levels. The causes of these truly spectacular gains are unknown, but they are probably inconsistent with the idea that typical inner-city teachers are content to watch students wrestle on the classroom floor instead of learning.In the highlighted passage, Rothstein referred to average scores on the Grade 4 NAEP math tests. He made a remarkable claim:
According to data from the NAEP, “black elementary school students now have better math skills than whites had only 20 years ago,” Rothstein said. Given what we constantly hear about stagnant or declining schools, can that possibly be accurate?
The data are there for all to see in our widely-praised “gold standard” testing program. As of 2005, black fourth-graders were scoring higher in math on the NAEP than white fourth-graders scored in 1990. These are some of the average scores to which Rothstein referred:
Average scores, public school studentsWhite students quickly improved on that 1990 average score. But unless something is grossly wrong with the NAEP data, black students seem to have made remarkable progress in math on the NAEP.
Grade 4 math, NAEP
White students, 1990: 218.63
Black students, 2005: 219.69
Black students, 2007: 222.01
Black kids have recorded strong score gains in math! To all intents and purposes, this important fact is never reported by the nation’s “press corps.”
Instead, the press corps parrots standard scripts about the alleged decline of our public schools. The score gains in question are never reported. Needless to say, no attempt is made to quantify the likely size of the actual academic gains.
Black students have recorded strong score gains in recent decades on our most reliable tests. As Rothstein notes, white students have recorded strong score gains too. So have Hispanic students!
The refusal to report these facts has represented an act of vast journalistic misconduct. That said, our journalists offend against the interests of black kids in a wide array of ways.
Black kids have recorded strong score gains. Withholding that news is a vast offense against the American public.
But even as those gains occur, large achievement gaps remain. The failure to discuss those gaps represents a vast offense too.
All next week, we’ll be reviewing the size of our various gaps. We’ll consider the gap between “the rich and the poor,” the gap to which Eduardo Porter referred in a recent column. (See part 1 of this series.)
But we’ll also look at the very large gaps between our white kids and our black kids.
The press corps has refused to report the strong score gains achieved by black kids. But in various ways, the press corps also refuses to discuss the size and significance of the gaps, which do remain quite large.
Tomorrow, we’ll review some recent examples of this avoidance. We need to hear about those score gains. But if we care about black kids, the gaps must be discussed too.
Tomorrow: Recent avoidance/evasion
All next week: The size of the gaps
To access data from the NAEP: To access data from the NAEP, you should learn to use the NAEP Data Explorer. This would place you light-years ahead of our “education reporters.”
Click here, then click on MAIN NDE. Click again to agree to the terms. From there, you’re on your own!
This less powerful tool, NAEP State Comparisons, may be simpler to work with. It provides national data along with state-by-state scores.