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Thompson: Hess & Jennings Cast Doubt on NCLB

The conservative spawn of the devil, Rick Hess, writes: "The acid test, I'd think, is whether they [test score increases] carry over to what matters: success in high school, college, and beyond. A decade of stagnant high school metrics is not reassuring, and it's possible that NCLB's command-and-control effort to improve schooling could be delivering up a false sense of progress."
Our liberal pragmatist hero, Jack Jennings, writes that "the lack of congruence between state test and NAEP results throws into doubt the ability of NCLB's accountability provisions to raise general students achievement." Jennings concludes, "The recent stalling of progress on NAEP since 2008 ... suggests  problems with the NCLB accountability approach." 
Is there a dimes worth of difference between the American Enterprise Institute scholar's and the consummate insider/scholar's conclusion?
Seriously, there is a difference between Hess's "musing" in Of Head Start and SAT and Jennings's thorough analysis of what worked and didn't work in accountability-driven reform. Hess starts with an old-fashioned conservative argument, raising the question of whether Head Start's gains are lasting. He then offers a specific critique of conservatives who keep whistling in the dark when bad news is announced. In this case, it is the decade-long decline of average SAT scores from 1514 for the class of 2006 to 1490 for the class of 2015 that reformers (who are now the new status quo) are scrambling to explain away.
Jennings, in Presidents, Congress, and the Public Schools, documents the long-term increase in student performance since 1970s, explaining why pre-NCLB improvement efforts were more successful than commonly assumed, and documenting the negative, unintended effects of NCLB's test-driven accountability system. 
Both the conservative and the liberal are refreshingly grounded in reality. Hess gets to the heart of the matter, writing about test score gains, "What's been less clear to me is whether those results necessarily reflect meaningful learning."
Hess notes that "there are a lot of moving parts here, and I don't claim to know what to make of all of them." He is sure, though, that the SAT finding:
probably deserves more reflection than the policy community has given it— and much more than chest-thumping proclamations that K-8 "works", but high schools are broken. In the end, we should find it troubling that a decade of unimpressive high school achievement tells a very different story than the scores usually used to reassure one and all that we're on the right course.
Hess wants us to apply the "same lens" to analyses of Head Start, the SAT, NCLB test scores, and the reliable NAEP results. Fortunately, Jennings has already done that and his findings cast even more doubt on the accountability regime that Hess criticizes. I will provide a fuller summary of Jennings's masterpiece, but in the meantime I'll cite some of his findings that are particularly valuable in this context.
Since Hess and Jennings both ask whether student performance increases are meaningful and lasting, I will focus on the most important metrics which are scores for the oldest students, in the most comparable groups, taking the most reliable tests. That means we must focus on 8th grade, especially reading. From 1992 to 2003, 8th grade reading scores for whites increased by five points. From 2003 to 2013, those scores increased by four points. From 1992 to 2003, 8th grade reading scores for blacks increased by eight points. From 2003 to 2013, those scores increased by six points.
The same decline in growth occurred in 8th grade math. From 1992 to 2003, white scores increased by 11 points. From 2003 to 2013, they increased by seven points. From 1992 to 2003, black scores increased by 16 points. From 2003 to 2013, they increased by 11 points.
Since 1973, "long-term NAEP results showed gains, especially for black and Hispanic students, until 2008. A disturbing finding, though, is that since 2008, achievement has not increased except for 13-year olds, nor have the achievement gaps narrowed between racial/ethnic groups." 
After reaffirming Jennings's disclaimer on our inability to causally link NAEP with changes in schools, I'll complete the record by citing two of the only three positive changes (out of the 24) reported by Jennings regarding post-2008 results. Since 1973, reading scores for all 13 year-olds increased by eight points. From 2008 to 2012, those increases were only three points. In math, the 1973-2013 scores were 19 points higher for all 8th graders; from 2008 to 2012, they increased by four points.  As noted, these were the most reliable results of the 1/8th of categories where gains haven't disappeared since 2008. (Though it is beyond the scope of this post, it seems likely that those to metrics are linked to the increase of Hispanic students and, perhaps, schools' efforts to serve that growing population.)
In sum, Jennings supports the continued effort to improve academic standards, but he concludes:
The primary justification for NCLB was to raise student achievement, and since it has not been shown to do that, it is time to pull the plug. The bad effects of NCLB outweigh the good. NCLB outlived its usefulness and ought to be repealed.

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A properly trained good and experienced teacher could have told us this when the testing mania started and saved us all from NCLB/Common Core hell, but the powers that be wouldn't have listened because their intent was not to improve learning. Standardized testing will never suffice to measure meaningful learning.

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