As always, a gloomy assertion: No sooner had the new Naep scores appeared than The Atlantic published a hard-hitting essay by Natalie Wexler.
Wikipedia describes Wexler as "an education journalist, novelist and historian." As has long required by Hard Pundit Law, she offered gloomy thoughts about the work of the public schools over the past twenty years.
Below, you see the start of Wexler's essay, gloomy headline included:
WEXLER (4/13/18): Why American Students Haven't Gotten Better at Reading in 20 YearsWe'll assume that Wexler didn't write the headline. That said, the headline captures the essence of her piece, in which she offers her expert views as to why "reading scores have been flat since 1998."
Every two years, education-policy wonks gear up for what has become a time-honored ritual: the release of the Nation’s Report Card. Officially known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, the data reflect the results of reading and math tests administered to a sample of students across the country. Experts generally consider the tests rigorous and highly reliable—and the scores basically stagnant.
Math scores have been flat since 2009 and reading scores since 1998, with just a third or so of students performing at a level the NAEP defines as “proficient.” Performance gaps between lower-income students and their more affluent peers, among other demographic discrepancies, have remained stubbornly wide.
Among the likely culprits for the stalled progress in math scores: a misalignment between what the NAEP tests and what state standards require teachers to cover at specific grade levels. But what’s the reason for the utter lack of progress in reading scores?
Have reading scores on the Naep been flat since 1998? That sounded a bit unlikely to us, so we decided to check. For reasons any expert would understand, we reviewed Grade 8.
(On the so-called "Main Naep" test, students are tested across the nation in Grades 4, 8 and 12. Kids in grade 8 are older than kids in Grade 4. Comparisons are tricky at Grade 12 due to lower dropout rates. Everybody understands this latter point, even Arne Duncan.)
Have reading scores been flat since 1998? For starters—and this is just a start—here are the overall average scores for the years in question, plus the percentages of kids deemed to be "proficient" (or higher):
Average scores/percentages deemed proficientThe score gain could be higher. But that score gain—4.67 points—is roughly equal to half an academic year, according to the very rough rule of thumb normally applied to Naep scores.
Public schools, Grade 8 reading, Naep
2017: 265.33 (34.74%)
1998: 260.66 (29.68%)
(For all Naep data, start here.)
That isn't a giant overall score gain. On the other hand, it was achieved at a time when demographic changes brought new challenges to classrooms.
When the scores are "disaggregated," we see that all major demographic groups achieved a larger score gain than the overall average gain during that 19-year period. (How is that possible? File under "Simpson's Paradox.")
How much have different groups progressed? We wouldn't necessarily call these data "flat:"
Gain in average scores, 1998-2017Again, ten points on the Naep scale is routinely said to be the equivalent of one academic year. All those score gains could be larger, but do those data suggest an "utter lack of progress in reading scores?" Do Hispanic kids count?
Public schools, Grade 8 reading, Naep
All students: 4.67 points
White students: 5.49 points
Black students: 6.34 points
Hispanic students: 13.17 points
Asian/Pacific Islander students: 20.00 points
We don't know why Wexler offered the gloomy claim about the "utter lack of progress in reading scores." We do know this:
For reasons we can't explain, almost everything you read about major issues, and often about major pols, seems to be written from script. Nowhere has this been more true than in the general area of public school test scores, whether from international or domestic testing programs.
In that general area, it has long been selective presentation, and apparent propaganda, pretty much all the way down.
Chomsky referred to this general phenomenon as a process of "manufactured consent." The public is led to accept the preferred outlook of elites through the process of selective and/or inaccurate presentation.
That was Chomsky's term. By way of contrast, we refer to this as "the latest from The Atlantic."
Earlier today, a friend suggested that we write a letter to the editor of The Atlantic. Incomparably, we responded like this:
Letters don't work. Neither do blog posts, comments in comment threads, op-ed columns in real newspapers, or acts of self-immolation.Just to complete the record: Wexler was mainly interested in reading scores and reading instruction, but she characterized math scores too.
Our public discourse runs on script. (Chomsky called the process "manufactured consent.") I don't know exactly how to explain this group dynamic, but nothing ever derails it, and all corrections get thrown away or ignored.
My take-away from the past twenty years: we aren't living on the planet the civics textbooks describe.
As a matter of anthropology, this is a fascinating discovery. In terms of citizenship, the implications are gloomy and rather clear.
Just to complete the record, here are the score gains in math since 1996. During the 1990s, math and reading were tested in different years:
Gain in average scores, 1996-2017Scores have been flat in recent years, but this follows a period of very large gains. Around the world, it has seemed to be easier to create gains in math than in reading.
Public schools, Grade 8 math, Naep
All students: 13.16 points
White students: 12.66 points
Black students: 20.32 points
Hispanic students: 19.31 points
Asian/Pacific Islander: 21.78 points (since 2000)
The public is essentially never told about public school score gains. We all know Chomsky is nuts, of course. But until Arne Duncan recently chirped, it seemed that presentation of data like these simply wasn't allowed.