There’s no question the pandemic has taken a toll on learning--but superintendents say there's more behind the NAEP results.

What do superintendents really think of the NAEP?

There’s no question the pandemic has taken a toll on learning--but superintendents say there's more behind the results

Last October, newspapers around the country reported the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card. And just like in previous years, the headlines weren’t positive. This time, though, it was even worse than usual. It was the first time students took these biennial assessments since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and based on the results, it was quite clear our country’s students had suffered greatly. Results had dropped in both reading and math in nearly every state in the nation. But beyond that, what did the tests prove?  

Not much, according to the many superintendents I’ve spoken with. My organization, the Institute for Education Innovation, recently hosted a conclave of innovative educators, along with business and nonprofit leaders in the education field, to discuss some of the thorniest topics in education today. NAEP was among them.  

It can be tough for school superintendents to publicly criticize this nationwide assessment, which has been congressionally mandated for decades, but behind closed doors, they had a lot to say. One participant even used the words “tar and feather” when talking about the people who came up with this assessment system—in jest, of course. But the fact is, feelings around NAEP are strong. 

Their issues with NAEP generally fell into three categories.  

  1. NAEP is a distraction, with zero impact on classroom instruction. It’s not really designed with that in mind. State-by-state results are dutifully reported every two years (and overall results in some large urban school districts are reported, as well.) But if your state ranks low, there’s no guide path towards improvement. There is no prescription to help raise proficiency levels. Most districts aren’t large enough to have an impact on statewide results, anyway. “I’m not concerned about NAEP scores,” one superintendent said. “I’m concerned about my own students. I’m concerned about Tier I instruction.”  
  1. It’s a political tool. NAEP results are often bandied about by politicians and pundits. But oftentimes, they wildly misstate some of the test’s key parameters. The NAEP assessment ultimately ranks students by achievement levels: basic, proficient or advanced. But what do those terms mean? Even the people in charge of the rankings do not say for sure. The achievement levels are being used on a “trial” basis until they’re formally evaluated. Years later, we’re still waiting. All of which is to say, it’s not quite as scientific as it’s made out to be by the pundits. There’s long been criticism that standards for “proficient” are unfairly high, and reflect achievement that’s above grade level, anyway.  “If I wanted to design a test to show that public dollars aren’t being used successfully in public education,” one member of our gathering said, “I would design NAEP.”  
  2. A test score is just one measure. It’s understandable that national leaders want a way to assess the country’s educational system, but a superintendent’s job is local. They’re looking at ground-level instruction. “I’m focused on what we can do to move instruction forward for kids,” one superintendent said. “It’s not about a test score.” Another said, “We need to address teacher instruction. We need to address teacher professional development. And we need to really individualize instruction for students. We need to break free of the paradigm that any number can tell the story of how education is doing.” 

To be sure, the nation’s superintendents were just as disheartened as anyone by the results reported in October. They showed particularly steep declines in math, where only about 1/4 of eighth graders and 1/3 of fourth graders ranked as “proficient.” Reading scores continued their downward trend, too, with only about 1/3 of test-takers achieving “proficiency.” Even if the term “proficient” doesn’t mean exactly what most people think–that’s still not where we want our students to be.  

There’s no question the pandemic has taken a toll on learning. But even there, the results aren’t clear cut. Whether states reopened sooner or later didn’t seem to have a correlation with results. Framing the results along red state/blue state lines isn’t all that helpful, either. One thing that is clear is students who were in the bottom 25th percentile backslid more than other students. That likely tells a story about more than an educational system.  

This all has left me wondering: Is the problem with the students who took the test? With K-12 education? Or is the problem actually the test itself?  

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