Focus on the lowest-performing students
Now that the NAEP scores are out, we can turn our attention from the prediction to interpretation, a place of much surer footing for me. While headlines are emphasizing the lack of progress in average scores – ‘No Progress’ Seen in Reading or Math on Nation’s Report Card,” EdWeek or, “A ‘Disturbing’ Assessment: Sagging Reading Scores, Particularly for Eighth Graders, Headline 2019’s Disappointing NAEP Results,” The74 – the story to me is the continued fall in achievement of our lowest-performing students.
Our high scorers have not seen meaningful dips. In fact, their scores have increased across the board over the last decade. In 2009, the highest ten percent of students scored an average of 264 and 305 in 4th and 8th grade reading, respectively. In 2017 those numbers were up to 267 and 310. While in 2019 these numbers dipped slightly to 266 and 309, they still show an increase relative the 2009 scores. Similarly, in math in 2009, the highest ten percent of students scored an average of 275 and 329 in 4th and 8th grade reading, respectively. In 2017 those numbers were again up to 279 and 333. In 2019 these numbers were 280 and 333, still showing an increase relative the 2009 scores.
However, for the lowest ten percent of students, scores have dropped across the board. The scores were 175 and 219 in 4th and 8th grade reading in 2009; by 2017 they had dropped to 171 and 219; and, over the past two years, they dropped further to 168 and 213. In math, the trends are similar: the scores were 202 and 236 in 4th and 8th grade math in 2009; dropping to198 and 233 in 2017 and dropping even lower at 199 and 231 in 2019.
The falling performance of the lowest scoring students is not inevitable. In the early 2000s, we saw greater gains for this group relative to the highest-performing students, whose scores also rose but at not as high a rate. These gains were evident in both 4th and 8th grade and in both math and reading. So what did we do at the start of the 21st century that we are no longer doing? We are not focusing as much attention on the students who are struggling the most, and we are not focusing as much attention on the schools serving the most struggling students. The No Child Left Behind Act set unreasonable expectations for schools – that all students should reach proficiency as defined by their state. As a result, it is no surprise that the waivers to NCLB and the subsequent Every Student Succeeds Act pulled backed on those requirements. Yet, it is also no surprise that the cost of these changes is felt by the lowest-performing students. For these students to maintain their prior gains and to see increased achievement in future years, we’ll need to bring the focus back to them. We can do so with better standards and with a broader view of the full set of capabilities students need to be successful in life and to contribute their broader community. However, without this focus, these students, in particular, are likely to suffer across the range of outcomes we care about.
Susanna Loeb is professor of education at Brown University and director of its Annenberg Institute.