It is week 138 of our new reality. Across the country, children are getting ready tonight for Halloween, which Scottish immigrants brought to America nearly two hundred years ago and has become a beloved tradition full of costumes, parties and, of course, candy.
As we have seen throughout the pandemic, having structures and rituals you can count on are crucial for all of us but especially for our children. And when you break those traditions, just getting back to normal can take a herculean effort.
One tradition we broke during the pandemic was the regular collection and release of student achievement results. Unfortunately, bureaucracies that would prefer to operate in the dark outside of the watchful eyes of the public, like the California and New York education departments, took advantage of these disruptions to announce that they wouldn’t release test score data before the elections. After a public outcry, they relented and then quietly put the data up on their websites on Oct. 24, the same day reporters were tied up analyzing NAEP data, perhaps hoping no one would notice.
The New York State Education Department further broke with tradition by releasing the data as a Microsoft Access database file, which makes it almost impossible for an ordinary citizen to get access to the results and understand how their local district and schools are performing.
Why go to all this trouble to obscure the results? Because the Empire State is failing its students. The newly released NAEP data–which is beyond the reach of state bureaucrats–shines a bright light on what is going on in New York schools:
- New York ranks 46th out of 50 states on the 4th grade math test, with an average scale score of 227. That means that students in the Empire State are nearly two grade levels behind their peers in Massachusetts (242) and Florida (241).
- New York has the fourth lowest ranking in the country for Hispanic students, with an average score of just 214. Black students in New York score even lower, with a scale score of just 212.
- Perhaps most concerning, New York was 48th out of 50 states in the size of the drop in student performance since 2019, with its 4th grade math students losing an average of 10 points or about one full grade level of learning. Only Virginia and Delaware saw bigger declines.
As we discuss below, the first step in helping students recover is to stop the spin and demand our leaders speak candidly about the facts. That’s a message that New York’s neighbor needs to hear as well. As Laura Waters points out, New Jersey is one of few remaining states that still hasn’t released its state data. “Where are the spring test scores? No one knows.”
The truth is the facts revealed by these tests can be hard to face but that makes it that much more important that we don’t look away. Looking at large districts, we find that the percentage of 4th graders scoring proficient on the NAEP math test is in single digits in Baltimore (7%), Cleveland (4%) and Detroit (3%). That means that on average less than one student in each 4th grade math class in the Motor City is able to do things like classify whole numbers as even or odd, subtract numbers with decimals or use a ruler to measure the length of an object.
But shining a spotlight on these stark realities only tells half the story. It’s just as important to focus on what this data reveals about what’s working. Perhaps the brightest spot of all in the 2022 NAEP results is the performance of Catholic schools.
“Today, the divergence between Catholic schools and public ones is so great that if all U.S. Catholic schools were a state, their 1.6 million students would rank first in the nation across the NAEP reading and math tests for fourth and eighth graders,” writes Kathleen Porter-Magee, who serves as superintendent of Partnership Schools which runs 11 Catholic schools in New York City and Cleveland, in an Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal. (Full disclosure: the author is my wife, so I’ve followed this work closely.)
“When disaggregated by race, Catholic schools showed significant gains since 2019. In particular, achievement among black students enrolled in Catholic schools increased by 10 points (about an extra year’s worth of learning), while black students in public schools lost 5 points and black students in charter schools lost 8 points. Similarly, on the eighth-grade reading test, Hispanic students in Catholic schools gained 7 points while Hispanic students in public schools lost 1 point and Hispanic students in charter schools lost 2 points. Catholic schools lead the nation for Hispanic achievement on each of the four tests, and lead the nation in black student achievement on three of the four.”
Why were Catholic schools able to climb to the top of the rankings while district schools and charter schools lost so much ground? In part because in the fall of 2020 “more than 92% of Catholic schools across the country re-opened for in-person learning, compared with 43% of traditional public schools and 34% of charters.” The traditional focus of Catholic schools on rigorous curriculum, phonics, foundational knowledge, family engagement and safe and orderly classrooms likely also ensured that this extra in-person time was well spent.
It is an important reminder that learning losses during the pandemic were not inevitable. They were the result of the choices our leaders made. We have a responsibility to examine those decisions, encourage debate grounded in facts and use what we learn to help drive our educational recovery.
FROM THE FIELD
Executive Directors at the 50CAN network met virtually twice this week to examine NAEP results, weigh the benefits of a variety of intervention strategies and to share context behind the results in their states. We share a few of their reactions with you today:
“I was prepared for our NAEP results to show what we all know to be true, which is that our students, especially our students that need us the most, suffered over the course of the last two years – and for decades before. But I wasn’t prepared for the reality of New Mexico’s results: 50th in every category. To have colleagues from across the country text me to say, ‘Wow, your results are heartbreaking’ was especially tough to swallow. We cannot and will not allow this failure to continue. NewMexicoKidsCAN is more committed than ever to bring our community together to say ‘enough, is enough.’ This will be the final time we’re last.” –Amanda Aragon, NewMexicoKidsCAN
“Colorado’s NAEP results put our state solidly in the middle of the pack but when you dig into the specific subgroups of students, it’s clear we have an enormous problem. At the state and district level, the gaps between students of color and their white peers has grown dramatically. It’s clear the most marginalized bore the biggest burden over the last two years and we owe it to our students to act decisively and not settle for a ‘back to normal’ approach.” -Nicholas Martinez, Transform Education Now
“We need urgent and immediate interventions in Tennessee, including doubling down on universal adoption of our state’s investment in high-quality, high-dosage tutoring for districts and schools that need additional support. The future leaders of our state and nation are in our classrooms, and it is in our collective interest to ensure that they have the resources and supports that they need to be successful both in the classroom and in life.” -Victor J. Evans, TennesseeCAN
“While we expected a drop in proficiency rates we didn’t anticipate just how far Delaware students had fallen in reading and math proficiency. The large gaps point to problems that persisted long before the pandemic. We can get our students back on track but not without targeted solutions from leadership who must pledge to respond with urgency.” -Britney Mumford, DelawareCAN
Moment of Resilience
Journalist Emily Hanford of APM Reports records students as they tackle work in a biology classroom. A recipient of AERA’s Excellence in Media Reporting on Educational Research award, Hanford’s new podcast Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong premiered in the top 20 of American podcasts. Focused on the problems, causes and solutions behind the country’s literacy crisis, the podcast is an introduction for the masses to the science of reading, the phonics-based approach that both Mississippi and Tennessee point to as being a critical factor in recovering from the lost learning of the pandemic.