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Diane Ravitch's Realistic Assessment of 2013 NAEP Results and Reform 'Success'

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In his smug review of education historian Diane Ravitch's November 8, 2013, questioning of the inconsistencies in 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results as an indicator that the corporate reform agenda is "working" -- I use the term "working" loosely since corporate reform has narrowed academic "success" to the almighty test score -- StudentsFirst (don't let the name fool you) VP of "National Policy" Eric Lerum promotes that Ravitch has somehow betrayed her former assertions regarding the utility of NAEP as a standardized measure.

It is important to Lerum that DC appear to thrive. After all, he is VP of an organization founded by infamous-yet-underinvestigated "reformer" Michelle Rhee, former DC chancellor. Maybe Lerum will be one of those present to insulate Rhee as she "debates" Ravitch on February 6. (Rhee would not agree to debate Ravitch mano a mano.)

Perhaps Lerum's November 14, 2013, post is practice for the February event.

In his post, Lerum cites past articles Ravitch has written. In one, Ravitch refers to the NAEP as "the gold standard." The article is from 2005, the year prior to Ravitch's realization that reforms she formerly supported, including charters, simply did not yield empirical outcomes justifying their replacing traditional public education.

As for Ravitch's discussion of NAEP in her 2005 article, her focus is on the superiority of NAEP to the myriad of state tests that states were allowed to use under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in order to measure "progress." In her November 8 article, Ravitch makes no mention of changing her position on this point. She does not reverse her position that a single federal test is a more objective measure of progress than is any number of state exams.

Lerum also cites a 2006 article Ravitch co-authored with Chester Finn as evidence of Ravitch's "abandoning" NAEP. However, Ravitch maintains the same focus in 2006 as she does in the previously-mentioned 2005 article: NAEP is a more consistent measure of state progress in math and science than are the numerous state tests that states were allowed to administer under NCLB.

Ravitch values NAEP stability. Nevertheless, Ravitch does not agree with the narrowing of the educational experience brought about by the reformer obsession with standardized testing. She notes as much in a 2010 Wall Street Journal op/ed that Lerum also cites as evidence of Ravitch's inconsistency. Instead, what one reads here is evidence of Ravitch's valuing human beings over a reform slate:

...The states responded to NCLB by dumbing down their standards so that they could claim to be making progress. Some states declared that between 80-90 percent of their students were proficient, but on the federal test only a third or less were. Because the law demanded progress only in reading and math, schools were incentivized to show gains only on those subjects. Hundreds of millions of dollars were invested in test-preparation materials. Meanwhile, there was no incentive to teach the arts, science, history, literature, geography, civics, foreign languages or physical education. [Emphasis added.]

In her 2005 article, Ravitch alludes to her expectation that the non-tested subjects would continue to have their place in a well-rounded education experience for American students:

America will not begin to meet the challenge of developing the potential of our students until we have accurate reporting about their educational progress. We will not have accurate reporting until that function is removed from the constraints of state and local politics. We will be stuck with piecemeal and ineffective reforms until we agree as a nation that education -- not only in reading and mathematics, but also science, history, literature, foreign languages and the arts -- must be our highest domestic priority. [Emphasis added.]

That well-rounded, "highest domestic priority" in education was not happening, as Ravitch explains in her 2010 op/ed:

In short, accountability turned into a nightmare for American schools, producing graduates who were drilled regularly on the basic skills but were often ignorant about almost everything else. Colleges continued to complain about the poor preparation of entering students, who not only had meager knowledge of the world but still required remediation in basic skills. This was not my vision of good education.

Lerum criticizes Ravitch for citing NAEP scores as evidence that charters were not outperforming community schools in her 2010 op/ed. He states that Ravitch used NAEP scores as "the foundation for her argument" against charters. Indeed, she does use NAEP scores to inform her opinion regarding charters in her 2010 op/ed. However, Lerum's purpose in writing his post is to establish that since Diane Ravitch is not celebrating what he views as supposed-amazing NAEP gains in DC and Tennessee, then Ravitch is against the use of NAEP to inform. Not so. Ravitch is against overdependence upon test scores as evidence of educational success or failure. She is tired of the framing of unqualified test score results as supreme evidence of student learning. And her decision to dismiss charters as a cure for the perceived ills of the American classroom is based upon more than just NAEP scores. She writes as much in her 2010 op/ed:

Charter evaluations frequently note that as compared to neighboring public schools, charters enroll smaller proportions of students whose English is limited and students with disabilities. The students who are hardest to educate are left to regular public schools, which makes comparisons between the two sectors unfair. The higher graduation rate posted by charters often reflects the fact that they are able to "counsel out" the lowest performing students; many charters have very high attrition rates (in some, 50-60% of those who start fall away). Those who survive do well, but this is not a model for public education, which must educate all children.

NAEP compared charter schools and regular public schools in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009. Sometimes one sector or the other had a small advantage. But on the whole, there is very little performance difference between them.

Given the weight of studies, evaluations and federal test data, I concluded that deregulation and privately managed charter schools were not the answer to the deep-seated problems of American education. [Emphasis added.]

As for Ravitch's November 8, 2013, post in which she supposedly dismisses "historic gains in DC and Tennessee," what Ravitch does is highlight the inconsistency of NAEP results across a number of reform-infested states:

There are just as many states using the same misguided strategies who made few or no gains as there were reformy states making big gains.

If test-and-punish strategies work, why don't they work everywhere?

D.C., Tennessee, and Indiana raised test scores, but the gains in other reformy states were small or negligible.

Below the national average were hard-driving reformy states including Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana, Rhode Island, Ohio, Connecticut, and. North Carolina.

That highly reformy state Wisconsin made no gains at all.

Michigan, New Jersey, and Massachusetts actually lost ground.

It is impossible to conclude, as some leaders have, that D.C., Tennessee, and Indiana have the right formula because so many states with exactly the same formula made no progress at all. Some of the states that were unlucky enough to win Race to the Top mandates made little or no gains or lost ground [Emphasis added].

It is not that Ravitch is questioning use of NAEP; she is questioning what, exactly, NAEP scores are capturing. Bruce Baker of Rutgers raises the same question. In commenting on his post regarding trends in NAEP scores, Baker writes,

Indeed... these are merely cohort changes which is why in some cases, shifting scores over time may merely reflect shifting demography. NAEP long term trend data essentially as whether the next cohort, appears, in terms of test scores, better prepared than the previous. But if that next cohort includes more kids in poverty, etc., we may have improved our delivery, but may still not see a higher outcome. We may have merely done okay at offsetting the increase in poverty. Or, the alternative, like DC, declining poverty/gentrification including re-entry of some into the public schooling system (via segregated charters & neighborhood schools) may actually lead to increases in scores over cohorts. [Emphasis added.]

The question becomes: What is truly being measured? It seems that in its scores, NAEP could be capturing such non-academic issues as changes in student demography.

Whatever is being measured, the DC NAEP scores remain the lowest in the nation. That is why, for example, DC appears farthest to the left in this graph of 2011 to 2013 NAEP Grade 4 Reading Gains copied from Baker's article. Even if one considers the five-point gain illustrated by the height of DC's "dot," the position to the left has DC at roughly 200 for a 2011 NAEP Grade 4 Reading score average. Add the 2013 five-point gain to that 200, and the resulting 205 does not shift the DC "dot" to the right enough for DC to "co-mingle" with other states.


Sorry, Lerum. No 2013 celebration from me for DC, nor for Tennessee, neither. Tennessee might have its five-point gain here, just like DC, but Tennessee sits in the middle of the graph. Tennessee is average.

Wonder how DC and Tennessee are doing with promoting art, dance, theater, music, team sports, and citizenship?

NAEP cannot inform me on these points.

Baker offers a number of NAEP trend graphs in his post, including those from 2003 to present and 2009 to present, for both math and reading, and for students in both grades 4 and 8. DC is an obvious, consistent low scorer. (On some graphs, Baker does not go low enough to include the DC score). I do not print them here for the sake of space, but do examine them and read his explanations.

Baker's analysis complements Gary Rubinstein's analysis of 2013 NAEP combined scores, including consideration of subsidized lunch status. DC is dead last, and Tennessee is in the middle of the 2013 NAEP "race." Indiana fares somewhat better.

The question of what influences NAEP measurement is important to consider. In his post, Lerum latches onto Ravitch's comment, "There is no way to prepare for NAEP," taken from her book, Reign of Error, page 125. Here is the comment in context:

The reformers believe that scores will go up if it is easy to fire teachers and if unions are weakened.

But is this true?

No. The only test scores that can be used comparatively are those of the National Assessment of Education Progress, because it is a no-stakes test. No one knows who will take it, no one knows what will be on the test, no student takes the full test, and the results are not reported for individuals or for schools. There is no way to prepare for NAEP, so there is no test prep. There are no rewards or punishments attached to it, so there is no reason to cheat, to teach to the test, or to game the system. [Emphasis added.]

Lerum maintains that Ravitch's comment bolded above directly contradicts a comment she writes in her November 8 post: "Are students in the states with the biggest gains getting better education or more test prep?" The comment is included in context below:

The latest NAEP reports on reading and math have been heralded as evidence for the success of the "reforms" that involve test prep...

There are just as many states using the same misguided strategies who made few or no gains [on NAEP] as there were reformy states making big gains...

Are students in D.C. getting a better education than those in Massachusetts? Highly unlikely.

Are the students in the states with the biggest gains getting better education or more test prep?

Let me say it as bluntly as I know how: these state comparisons are stupid and say nothing about the quality of education available in different states. [Emphasis added.]

In her post, Ravitch clearly notes that there is no relationship between high NAEP scores and prevalent influence of corporate reform priorities -- including test prep. Thus, her question regarding high test scores and test prep is couched in a discussion of general educational quality, not a specific challenging of high NAEP scores as resulting from test prep.

Lerum wants readers to believe that Ravitch has been capricious in her treatment of NAEP and its results. He writes of Ravitch as "abandoning" NAEP. Call it what you will, Lerum. Despite your slanted assertions, all that Ravitch has demonstrated in her review of the 2013 NAEP results is her commitment to students as human beings worthy of a well-rounded education- the value of which cannot be primarily captured by any standardized test no matter how established it is -- even if such a test is the NAEP.

Originally posted 11-16-13 at

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