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The Nation's Report Card - Unpacking NAEP Results

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A few weeks ago, the troubling results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were released. Within hours, numerous articles appeared across major media sites about the consequences of learning loss, the dysfunctionality of school systems, and the enormous hill that needs to be climbed for results to start turning around in the right direction. At their core, the numbers are absolutely shocking; they report the largest drop in math in about 50 years, with an average overall drop of nine points in math and four points in reading. Student achievement was already declining prior to the pandemic, and now the metrics have snowballed in alarming ways. While we may bemoan what is happening right now, the real issue concerns the future of children nationwide. Why is this happening, and how can this trend be reversed?

Inequitable Distribution of Resources

As many experts are quick to point out, the NAEP results do not apply to everyone. From not just one district to another, but also sometimes from building to building, there are vast disparities in what students experience and the resources that are provided for their learning, both human and material. Generally, education funding comes up lacking either because money is reallocated elsewhere or goes unused. Beyond that, formulas for how schools are staffed or who gets updated technology might be flawed or may not be subject to an ideal amount of scrutiny. For public schools especially, state and local government priorities for oversight of funding might need to be rethought. While meaningful changes to schools are adaptive and occur over time, sometimes a technical fix (in this case, better checks and balances about who receives support) can get things moving in the right direction.

An Ongoing Opportunity Gap

What was originally coined the “achievement gap” has revealed itself to be an opportunity gap, but that epiphany has not brought about much change. Students who experience inequitable norms struggle to exhibit the same growth as their peers. Too many education systems are still perpetuating an endless cycle of racist outcomes, and deeper shifts are needed for more meaningful adaptation. For example, on a more surface level, schools might try to remove structures that lead to biased outcomes, such as ending the process of tracking students into courses throughout their academic careers rather than providing effective differentiated instruction. However, a lot of training is needed to help teachers recognize where course standards lie, how to ensure that all students achieve them, and what to do when kids either need scaffolding to meet the standard or extension to push beyond. Without more energy and time devoted to building instructional capacity as well as the open recognition that current systems are unacceptable, the same actions year after year will continue to garner the same results.

Status Quo Norms

Without change, there can be no progress. At the outset of 2020’s lockdown, so many educators expressed the hope that finally, unacceptable practices would be replaced with something better. As we know, that never happened. School reform is a notoriously tricky enterprise, and it’s far too easy to fall back on what feels comfortable or established. For that reason, spending a lot of time on root cause analysis of a problem and picking one specific place to start (as opposed to a wish list of items) is the only way to knock down stubborn barriers that will otherwise remain immobile. It can be difficult to determine what to prioritize, so getting feedback from a variety of stakeholders (district officials, administrators, teachers and students) is a good first step. Just as important, being open to what people share is key. We might all have strong opinions about where to start, but it takes a lot of courage to listen to people without letting inner bias take over and engage in genuine conversations about what course of action is best for all. 

Lack of Leadership

The proverbial buck stops with school or district leaders, and an overwhelming number of appointed officials seem to have been collectively at sea for quite some time about how to make the kind of change that will result in a different pattern for standardized test results. Frequently, education leaders are put in place via hierarchical, top-down methods. While it might make sense to promote those who have exhibited a track record of success in school improvement, it does not benefit anyone to continue doing two things that happen far too often in school systems. The first is to promote leaders who are struggling via what is commonly known as “failing upward” so that they can disappear into offices and do very little to help anyone. The second is to promote only leaders who have run schools that would be successful no matter what, thanks to factors like economic advantage. The best pathway forward is to appoint bold leaders who transformed underperforming schools or districts despite all the challenges they faced because these individuals have a wealth of knowledge not just in management, but also with instruction. 

Unless some of the ongoing issues that plague the American education system are addressed, the annual release of NAEP scores will continue to stun and dismay. The pandemic provides just one explanation for what is happening, but as those who work in schools are only too aware of, the issues that lead to lower achievement pre-date 2020 and continue to go unchecked. The only way to experience a new reality is to remove the inequities that limit the futures of too many students, to challenge dysfunctional norms that have been in place far too long, and to appoint leaders who will make bold decisions that move schools successfully into the future. 

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less, Lead Like a Teacher and Writing Their Future Selves. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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