Lessons from State Performance on NAEP

Lessons from State Performance on NAEP
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Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam compliments a group of 6th graders at John P. Freeman Optional School in Memphis, Tenn. Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013, after the State of Tennessee scored high on National Assessment of Educational Progress Tests, marking the best educational gains in any state. The students were at work learning about electrical current. (AP Photo/The Commercial Appeal, Kyle Kurlick)

RCEd Commentary

In the early 1990s, Iowa’s public schools were considered by many to be among the best in the nation. But it's hard to make that case anymore, and when it comes to low-income students, only around 20 percent of Iowa’s children currently read at grade level.

How did Iowa's public schools get knocked from its perch? When it comes to education, there's rarely a straightforward answer. But a new report that we released today gives a few clues, and standards-based reform may play a key role in raising student outcomes. The data in our report--which was published by the Center for American Progress--shows that low-poverty students in Iowa have not gained all that much, and part of the reason appears to be the state's lack of commitment to standards-based reform.

In many ways, the standards movement started in 1983 with the release of the groundbreaking, presidential commission report called “A Nation at Risk.” The report discussed the troubling state of public education and recommended significant policy changes, including a focus on academic standards. Most of the states soon adopted academic standards as well as tests to measure how students performed against these standards.

In our report, we took a closer look at the relationship between standards-based reform and student outcomes as measured by National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a test often called the “nation’s report card.”  As we discuss in the report, we found that reform-oriented states--such as Tennessee and Massachusetts—as well as the District of Columbia, showed some of the largest gains on NAEP for low-income students over past decade.

At the same time, states that were adverse to standards-based reform, such as Kansas, Montana, and Idaho, among others, showed the weakest results when it came to the achievement gains of low-income students. Take Iowa again. As noted in the report, Iowa was one of the last states to adopt standards and shows limited gains among high-poverty kids over the last decade. The situation was even worse in other states that are adverse to standards, thought, and North Dakota and South Dakota actually showed a dip in NAEP scores for low-income populations over the past decade.

To ensure that we were not just picking and choosing states to fit our thesis, we also built upon an Education Week analysis and found a clear systematic relationship between standards-based reform and outcomes. In fact, standards-based reform appeared to boost scores in fourth-grade math and eighth-grade reading.

The new Common Core State Standards builds on the standards-based reform approach. But in recent months, some states – including Oklahoma and South Carolina – have left the reform effort because of political shifts. This is bad policy, however, and these two states have weak results among their low-income populations. For example, just 14 percent of poor middle school students in South Carolina are doing grade level work in math.

We can't say for sure that standards-based reform is the reason all of these increases--or lack of increases--in student achievement because our analysis is not causal. Plus, high-quality standards-based reform also requires states to address issues in fiscal equity and instructional capacity building. But our results are clearly suggestive, and in the end, we believe that the nation should embrace what shows strong outcomes, particularly when it comes to the needs of our most vulnerable young people.

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