testing takeaways

A decade of stagnation: Little progress on closely watched federal test, as big disparities persist

Scores on the exams known as the “nation’s report card” have barely budged over the last two years, new data show.

The minimal progress on the federal math and reading exams given to fourth and eighth graders will be a disappointment to officials who have hoped that their policies would boost students’ performance or help close yawning gaps between groups of students.

The 2017 results also mean that the U.S. has seen its test scores largely stagnate for a decade, after 10 years of substantial gains in math. The country’s “achievement gaps” between black and white students, and between low-income and affluent students, have also largely held steady over the last 10 years.

“I’m pleased that eighth-grade reading scores improved slightly but remain disappointed that only about one-third of America’s fourth- and eighth-grade students read at the NAEP Proficient level,” said former Michigan Governor John Engler, the chair of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the tests. “We are seeing troubling gaps between the highest- and lowest-performing students. We must do better for all children.”

In an era when standardized testing is commonplace, the National Assessment of Educational Progress is the rare exam with low stakes for individual students and schools, but high stakes for politicians and policymakers. Some education leaders have staked their own reputations on NAEP results.

But score analyzers, beware: It’s difficult to draw conclusions about the benefits of specific policies based on the results. NCES, the federal agency that administers the tests, warns against it.

Some have also questioned what the transition to digital assessments means for the trends in individual state results, though NCES insists that extensive efforts have been made to account for this change.

Still, advocates on all sides will use them to argue for their preferred changes to education policy. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has already praised the gains in one state, Florida, and highlighted the disappointing national results. “The report card is in, and the results are clear: We can and we must do better for America’s students,” she said.

What you should know about NAEP and this year’s scores

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is administered by the federal government to a sample of students across the country. The most closely watched tests are the fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading exams, since they show how scores are changing nationally, in individual states, and in a number of cities.

The 2017 results showed only tiny differences from 2015: a loss of 1 point in both subjects in fourth grade, and a gain of 1 point in both subjects in eighth grade. Only the grade eight reading improvement was statistically significant compared to the last test.

(One way to think about how big that is: the difference between the “basic” and the “proficiency” benchmarks is about 35 points, depending on the test.)

Most students did not reach the test’s “proficient” benchmark, which is considered a high bar to clear. But some groups of students remain further behind.

Exam Share of students scoring ‘proficient’ and above Share scoring ‘basic’ and above
Fourth-grade math 40% 80%
Eighth-grade math 34% 70%
Fourth-grade reading 37% 68%
Eighth-grade reading 36% 76%

In eighth-grade math, the average black student scored just below the “basic” benchmark, while the average white student came several points shy of the higher “proficient” benchmark. Forty-four percent of white students were proficient, compared to 20 percent of Hispanic students and 13 percent of black students.

Gaps were similarly large between students who did and did not qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a common proxy for poverty.

While test score gaps by race and poverty remained static, there was a notable increase in the difference in performance between the highest achieving students and the lowest-achieving ones.

As expected, some states and cities saw their scores rise and fall modestly, though the vast majority held steady. Alaska, Louisiana, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Vermont saw statistically significant declines on two or more tests, while Florida was the only state that made significant gains on multiple tests. None of the state improvements or drops were more than 6 points.

Eighth grade reading scores over time

Fourth grade math scores over time

Source: National Center for Education Statistics. Graphics by Sam Park.

Louisiana, New Mexico, and Mississippi students continued to rank at or near the bottom, while Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New Hampshire students perform consistently well.

(Since state demographics vary — and NAEP results are highly correlated with race and poverty — research has tried to account to for that to better isolate performance of schools, and those rankings differ significantly.)

The longer-run trends in NAEP are more positive than the latest results. Nationally, scores have improved substantially in math and modestly in reading since the early 1990s.

What’s the deal with the flat scores?

It’s unclear why scores are flat. NCES, which administers the exam, says the scores could be influenced by specific policies, resources available to schools, and demographics.

That’s a frustrating limitation for policymakers who want clear solutions. It’s also unlikely to stop the finger-pointing and policy prescriptions.

Critics of the reform efforts that prevailed under the Obama administration — the expansion of charter schools, introduction of the Common Core learning standards, and the creation of new teacher evaluation systems — will likely see the results as vindication, even as supporters use the latest data to argue that public schools need substantial change.

A handful of careful statistical analyses have tried to gauge how certain policies have affected NAEP scores in the past. For instance, one recent study found that states that made greater cuts in school funding in response to the Great Recession saw worse NAEP scores as a result; an older study found that an infusion of school funding led to greater NAEP gains.

Other research has found that when states introduce stringent school accountability systems, they do better on the NAEP math tests.

not so fast

Why Tennessee legislators share blame, too, for TNReady testing headaches

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee lawmakers listen to Gov. Bill Haslam deliver his 2016 State of the State address at the State Capitol in Nashville.

Exasperated with another round of testing problems in Tennessee public schools, state lawmakers have used their bully pulpit to rail against Education Commissioner Candice McQueen for her management of the state’s beleaguered standardized test.

Last week, they called her in to the State Capitol for a two-hour grilling about online snafus and a reported cyber attack that got TNReady testing off to another rocky start. Several called for McQueen’s resignation.

The next day, lawmakers dramatically stepped in and passed legislation so that this year’s scores mostly won’t count on student grades or in important decisions about teachers and schools, essentially gutting the state’s vaunted accountability system, at least for this year.

Few legislators have been willing to talk about the elephant in the room, but several education advocates have.

Just four years ago, PARCC was to be the vehicle for Tennessee students to begin testing online using questions aligned to Common Core academic standards for math and English language arts. At the time, Tennessee was a Common Core state and had been working for several years toward sharing an online test through a multi-state consortia known as PARCC, short for the Partnership for Assessment in College and Career Readiness.

But in April 2014, six months before testing was supposed to begin and amid political backlash over Common Core, the legislature voted to pull out abruptly from the partnership.

The decision, which was against the wishes of Gov. Bill Haslam and former Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, set the state’s collision course toward TNReady. It meant that Tennessee had to develop a new test — pronto — and find a new company to administer it. Measurement  Inc., a small North Carolina-based firm, was hired for $108 million in November 2014.

Generally, it takes at least two years to create a test and prep for launch. State lawmakers gave Measurement Inc. about a year, with the first testing starting in the fall of 2015 for some high school students. But the real test came in February 2016. That’s when most students in grades 3-11 logged on and the platform collapsed on the very first day, the victim of too many students trying to test at one time with too few computer servers.

McQueen, who had replaced Huffman after the deal was inked with Measurement Inc., subsequently scrubbed tests for most students that year and fired the state’s testing company. A few months later, she turned to Minnesota-based Questar to pick up the pieces for $30 million annually beginning in July of 2016. Things went slightly better the next year with TNReady, though not perfectly.

This year, a lot was riding on Tennessee officials to get TNReady right in a return to statewide online testing. But when more technical problems erupted on the first day this spring, McQueen immediately became the target for blame.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has been under fire for her oversight of the state’s standardized test, known as TNReady, which has had a string of high-profile problems since its 2016 rollout.

“We do want to have that one throat to choke,” she told reporters who asked who should be held accountable, before adding that “there’s lots and lots of people involved.”

During a legislative hearing that same day, Rep. Mark White reminded his colleagues about their pivotal 2014 decision to pull out of the testing consortia.

“General Assembly, we had some ownership in this,” said the Memphis Republican, who also voted to exit the partnership. “We had a testing company originally four years ago …[but] we pushed back against the commissioner and the Department of Education and said we don’t want PARCC for political reasons. … We fussed about Common Core and we fussed about the standards.”

Tennessee wasn’t alone. In 2014, it was one of 18 states that comprised the consortia. The partnership is now down to four states — Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, and New Mexico — along with Washington, D.C., and schools operated by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Bureau of Indian Education.

"General Assembly, we had some ownership in this."Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis

The exodus was due to mostly Republican complaints of federal overreach by the Obama administration for incentivizing states to adopt the controversial Common Core standards. But superintendents back home were also fearful of the switch to computerized testing.

Online testing has gone fairly smoothly for those that stayed in the partnership, and PARCC is now the only assessment fully approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

“States that have continued with the program now have four years of longitudinal data measuring student performance and growth over time,” said Arthur VanderVeen, who leads New Meridian, the company that manages the partnership.

The shared test also has been a money saver.

Hanna Skandera, New Mexico’s former secretary of education, said economies of scale allowed her state to cut testing costs by more than a quarter by sticking with PARCC. More importantly, she said, the test has been an effective measuring stick.

“This is not about a brand. It’s about quality of assessment,” said Skandera, who formerly chaired the partnership’s board. “PARCC allowed us to measure the things we cared about — critical thinking, higher expectations aligned to higher education. In New Mexico, it’s been a big step in the right direction.”

Below, you can view a timeline of Tennessee’s testing journey from PARCC to TNReady.

new rules

Now that TNReady scores will count less for students, will they even try?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia

In the face of a statewide testing debacle, the Tennessee legislature’s hasty edict this week to discount test results has mollified some teachers and parents, but raised more questions about the role of test scores and further eroded the motivation of students, who must labor for about two more weeks on the much-maligned TNReady test.

Thursday’s sweeping measure to allow districts to ignore test results when grading students and to prohibit the use of test scores when determining teacher compensation has left educators and students shrugging their shoulders.

“I’ve gone from ‘oh well, tests are just a part of life’ to ‘this is an egregious waste of time and resources and does not respect the developmental needs of our children,’” said Shelby County parent Tracy O’Connor. For her four children, the testing chaos has “given them the idea that their school system is not particularly competent and the whole thing is a big joke.”

Her son, Alex O’Connor, was even more succinct. “We spend $30 million on tests that don’t work, but we can’t get new textbooks every year?” said the 10th-grader at Central High School. “What’s up with that? I’m sure half of us here could design a better test. It’s like buying a used car for the price of a Lamborghini.”

The legislature’s decision created a new challenge for Tennessee’s Department of Education, which planned to use 2018 TNReady testing data to rate and identify the lowest-performing schools, as required by the federal government. Now, with the test’s reliability under question, state officials say they are determining “additional guidance” to provide districts on how the state will comply with the U.S. Department of Education.

Student test results still will be used to generate a score for each teacher in the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS. Scores will count for 20 percent of teachers’ evaluations, though districts now cannot use the scores for any decisions related to hiring, firing, or compensating teachers.

For students, local school boards will determine how much TNReady scores will count toward final grades — but only up to 15 percent. Several school districts have already expressed serious reservations about the testing data and likely won’t use them in students grades at all. And in previous years, the results didn’t come back in time for districts to incorporate them anyway.

In sum, asked Memphis sophomore Lou Davis, “Why are we doing this anymore when know it won’t count?”

About 650,000 students are supposed to take TNReady this year, with 300,000 of them testing online, according to the state. Each student takes multiple tests. As of Friday, more than  500,000 online tests sessions had been completed.

Even as testing continues, some education leaders worry the exam’s credibility is likely to sink even further, because students might not try, and parents and teachers may not encourage much effort.

“In the immediate term, there’s concern about how seriously people will take the test if they know it’s not going to count,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, head of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition and a member of the state’s testing task force. “Will students continue to take the test? Will kids show up? Will parents send their kids to school?” she asked. “Now, there’s the whole question of validity.”

Sara Gast, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said while the new legislation provides more flexibility for districts in how they use TNReady results, it doesn’t mean that the results don’t matter.

“The results always matter. They provide key feedback on how students are growing and what they are learning, and they provide a big-picture check on how well they are mastering our state academic expectations,” Gast said. “It serves as accountability for the millions of taxpayer dollars that are invested into public education each year.”

Jessica Fogarty, a Tullahoma school board member and parent, says she thinks this year’s testing issues could lead to more parents telling their kids to refuse state tests in the future.

A proponent of opting out of state tests, Fogarty said, “We need to understand that we can choose what our children do or do not suffer through. I hope this debacle showed parents what a waste of time this is — students would gain more through reading a book.”

Because Tennessee has no official opt-out policy, students wanting to opt out must “refuse the test” when their teacher hands it to them.

Jennifer Proseus, a parent of a student at Bartlett High School, said her daughter has opted out of state testing in the past, but started taking the exams this year because she believed it could affect her final grades.

“With college looming in a couple years, she couldn’t afford to get zeroes on her report cards,” Proseus said. But with the test debacle, her daughter might change her mind and just skip the remaining two weeks of testing.

“I even took the online practice TNReady a few years ago and it was terribly confusing to navigate,” Proseus said. “The testing in Tennessee is not transparent — it is almost like it is set up to trick and fail children — and that’s very cruel for a young child to deal with.”