You’ve Been Snookered

The American educational crisis is not real.

Cutting through the hubris to the meat of the argument, American students are neither falling behind the performance of other nations nor declining in comparison to American peers.

To the extent that standardized tests can be used to effectively evaluate American student achievement, there is only one widespread standardized test that has been used for a significant period of time in America, and that is the NAEP, National Assessment of Educational Progress. Full disclosure: I gleaned the data used here from Diane Ravitch’s “Reign of Error”, not from NAEP itself, although all of her documentation is directly sourced from NAEP itself, with links in the e-book to the primary data. I did, however, read the primary data myself to corroborate her assertions.

As Ravitch breaks it down, NAEP does not inherently tie its scores to achievement levels. However, for the purposes of making some sort of sense out of the data, NAEP recognizes levels of advanced, proficient, basic, and below basic that are tied to generalized ideas of subject mastery based on student scores. Ravitch, who worked for seven years as a presidential appointee to the National Assessment Governing Board overseeing the NAEP testing program, likens the scoring levels to traditional schooling performance as follows:

  • Advanced is similar to an A+
  • Proficient is similar to an A-, or a strong B+
  • Basic is similar to a B or C
  • Below Basic is similar to a D or below

One of the first mistakes made by as prominent an educational figure as Michelle Rhee is to state that only students earning Proficient levels or higher on NAEP are being successful. In reality, as you can see, students earning a Basic level on NAEP are also demonstrating at least a, well, basic mastery of the subject matter being tested.

That said, how are American students performing on NAEP?

Percentage of students performing BELOW BASIC on NAEP

 

Black

Hispanic

White

Asian

1990

2011

1990

2011

1990

2011

1990

2011

4th Grade Math

83

34

67

28

41

9

39

9

4th Grade Reading

68

51

62

49

29

22

40

20

8th Grade Math

78

49

66

39

40

16

36

14

8th Grade Reading

55

41

51

36

25

15

24

17

 While this is kind of a backhanded way to look at the data, what it shows is very interesting. Reverse the numbers and you can see that, as of 2011, 51% of black 8th grade students are considered to be at a C grade level or higher in mathematics, as opposed to only 21% in 1990. That is a fairly significant (30 percentage point) gain.

Take a quick look at the comparison between black and white students. There was an achievement gap of 38% in 1990, and of 33% in 2011. It is not possible to close the achievement gap while all subgroups continue to show gains, but this shows that the gap is, indeed, slowly narrowing. Works remains to be done, most assuredly.

There is plenty of other data to show that American students are gaining in scores on NAEP, and I encourage you to seek it out. How about internationally?

Scores on the PISA, Program for International Student Assessment, similarly demonstrate that American students are top-performing as compared to their peers of similar demographics. View this video for specific information. This indicates that what we in America have is not an educational crisis, but a poverty crisis. That, however, is a post for another time.

Two more points before I go: graduation and drop-out rates. Again, the problem here is not with the actual educational process, it is with the measurement. When you remove the qualifier of “completed high school in four years”, 90% of 18-24 year olds have a high school diploma. Sometimes, for some reasons, it takes some students a little longer to finish. (Reasons can include significant life changes such as the loss of a loved one or divorce in addition to truancy and behavioral or learning needs in the classroom.) While that isn’t ideal, it’s far from crisis proportions. Remember that back before and up to the time of the second world war only about 50% of American students earned a high school diploma.

Alongside that, drop-out rates among high school students have declined significantly since 1972. Since 1972, drop-out rates among black students have declined from 21% to 9%, and rates of white students have declined from 12% to 5%.

Writing conclusions has always been my challenge, so I will just leave you with these thoughts: Who has manufactured this educational crisis, why has it been manufactured, and who stands to benefit from the privitization of public education that is coming about from the promulgation of the (imaginary) degradation of traditional public schooling?

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