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What the 2019 Nation’s Report Card Tells Us About the State of Education

Michael Nutter

December 4, 2019

The latest report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress has found that we are headed in the wrong direction when it comes to closing the student achievement gap.

On October 30, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released the findings from its most recent round of testing, and the results were disappointing. While many rankings remained stable, most of the statistically significant changes were decreases in performance rather than increases. In many cases, student communities who were underperforming in 2017 have continued to stall, while higher-performing students showed modest gains.

One thing the NAEP results make clear is ensuring that school districts are sufficiently funded is essential to student achievement and success. The rankings decreases (and the overall stagnancy of student performance) are at least partially due to funding cuts from the 2008 recession. A number of studies have found that, a decade on from the start of the Great Recession, a majority of states are still providing less funding per student to public schools than they were in 2007. This has a direct negative effect on student achievement — but how have these cuts disproportionately affected low-performing students?

What Is NAEP?

Since 1969, NAEP has been the largest ongoing, nationally representative evaluation of the status and progress of education and student achievement in the United States. Every two years, NAEP releases “The Nation’s Report Card,” which is intended to keep the public abreast of student performance across subjects, states, urban districts, and groups. NAEP does this by testing students in jurisdictions and districts that volunteer to take part in the Trial Urban District Assessment, and rates student progress according to lower-, middle-, and higher-performing percentiles.

While an awareness of district performance is certainly important, educators, representatives, and administrators across the country also value NAEP’s data for the larger insights it provides regarding trends in American education. The data provides guidance regarding where to direct attention, as well as which student communities to target with initiatives to help create equitable educational environments.

“The insight into students’ experiences that NAEP provides is invaluable in shining a light on access to resources and opportunities that can focus efforts to improve outcomes for students,” says Rebecca Gagnon, Chair of the Governing Board’s Reporting and Dissemination Committee. “NAEP is incredibly helpful to give some context to where we were and how far we’ve come.”

What the Results Mean

The 2019 Nation’s Report Card shows that, compared to results from a decade ago, math scores have decreased for low-performing fourth and eighth graders. In contrast, math scores for high-performing student communities increased in both grades, meaning the gap between low-performing and high-performing students has only continued to grow. The same trends generally hold true for reading scores, but eighth grade scores were lower across the board, with bigger slips appearing in lower-performing student communities.

Susanna Loeb, Director of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, says that the story told by these results is a “continued fall in achievement of our lowest-performing students.” In a written response to the report, she argues, “For these students to maintain their prior gains and to see increased achievement in future years, we’ll need to bring the focus back to them. We can do so with better standards and with a broader view of the full set of capabilities students need to be successful in life.”

Fortunately, the NAEP report wasn’t all bad news. While still reporting scores below the national average, many big city schools have made strides to close the performance gap. In Washington, D.C., the upper and lower percentile of students both showed strong improvement in reading and math, despite a series of public school scandals last year. Mississippi — which has one of the best early literacy programs in the country — is continuing its decade-long trend of improved student reading scores.

Effecting Change at the District Level

So what immediate action can be taken based on these results? The broad reform agenda of the past decade has not produced the results it promised. Many educational policy researchers are suggesting we need a new course of action — one that includes large spending increases to attract, retain, and train better teachers and staff, and one in which government funds are redistributed more equitably to schools and districts serving disadvantaged and underperforming students.

As educators and district officials, you don’t have control over the funding and reform decisions made at the state and federal levels. However, you can work to change your own district. Holding individual districts accountable for focusing on low-performing groups will drive change that ultimately makes a difference in student performance. But this kind of redirection can be difficult — and expensive. In order to guarantee that your district gets the full amount of funding it deserves to power your own teaching initiatives, schools need an accurate EMIS reporting system.

Vinson’s CheckPoint EMIS Platform offers intuitive reporting that makes it easy to track student data without the need for clunky, error-prone spreadsheets. CheckPoint helps identify data errors and ensure that your district is on track to receive all the funding to which you and your students are entitled.

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