Raw Data II: Student Achievement Over the Past 20 Years

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

In my post earlier today about NAEP test score trends, I said I was pessimistic about recent educational reforms because big gains among 9-year-olds mostly seem to wash away by the time students graduate from high school. However, several commenters complained that this was unfair: high school students in 2008 had spent only a few years in the post-NCLB “reform” environment. What we really want to look at are cohort effects. How do kids who have spent their entire lives in the new environment do?

First, some background. In my initial post I used data from the NAEP long-term assessment. This has two big advantages. First, the data goes back further. Second, the long-term test has stayed more stable over time, which makes it a better standard for trend comparisons. In contrast, the main NAEP test gets rewritten every decade or so.

However, the main test still has a pretty good reputation, and it also has the advantage of providing more recent data. We don’t have 2011 scores for high school students yet, but we do have 2011 reading and math scores for 4th and 8th graders. So here are test score improvements on the main test from 1992 through 2011:

As usual, keep in mind the rule of thumb that a 10-point change on NAEP scores is about equal to one grade level.

This only goes through middle school, but it’s obviously more promising than the long-term data I posted earlier. The 4th grade gains in reading are considerably more modest than on the long-term assessment, but they persist through 8th grade. The gains in math are better than on the long-term assessment, and although some of the gains are lost by 8th grade, the dropoff isn’t huge. Note that the 1992 cohort of 8th graders is almost entirely pre-reform, even if you count state reforms that predate NCLB, while the 2011 cohort of 8th graders began first grade in 2003, so these are kids who have spent their entire school lives in post-reform schools. That makes this a pretty good comparison group.
 

Now, there are several caveats here:

  • We still don’t know how high-school students are doing. We’ll need to wait until 2015 before we have a cohort of 12th graders who have spent their entire lives in post-reform schools.
  • The data is from the main NAEP assessment. For longitudinal studies, I think the long-term assessment is probably superior.
  • As usual, you have to decide for yourself if you think scores on standardized tests are really a good measure of student achievement.

Still, caveats aside, this data clearly supports a fairly optimistic view of how our schools are doing. Keep it in mind whenever you read a mournful op-ed about our failing educational system.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest