This spring, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction declared ‘NC holds steady on most measures of national assessment.’
The assessment in question was the 2017 version of the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) – commonly referred to as the nation’s report card. The test, given to students across the country, is widely regarded as a credible gauge of student performance in specific grades.
So, How’d We Do?
Most pundits called North Carolina’s results a mixed bag. Eighth-grade reading and math scores were up 1 and 2 points respectively – essentially no change from the 2015 scores. More concerning were fourth-grade test results, which declined by 2 points in reading and 3 points in math.
The fourth-grade reading scores, while down year over year, remained three points higher than the national average (221) while sixteen states had better fourth-grade reading scores than North Carolina. Regarding fourth grade math, North Carolina students scored 241, down three points from the previous year, but not statistically different from the national average score of 239. Again, fifteen states had higher fourth-grade math scores than North Carolina.
The decline in fourth grade reading scores should get people’s attention. Especially since North Carolina has spent $150 million to boost reading scores and ensure that students who are not reading at grade level by grade 3 will get special help. The test results were not good news. About 39 percent of fourth graders and 33 percent of eighth graders were rated “proficient” on NAEP reading exams. While it’s true those scores are slightly above the national average, they have also declined since the last NAEP exam was administered in 2015.
Pulling Back the Curtain
It is easy to shrug off the mild disappointment which short-term NAEP results have produced. More troubling however is that most policymakers fail to put the findings in a larger context. For the past 15 years, trend lines for math and reading scores have seen no significant improvements at the state or federal level. They have been essentially flat. Over the past decade-and-a-half North Carolina state government has provided the public schools more than $108 billion in funding and included a raft of initiatives to boost student achievement and help those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Despite the influx of dollars, there has been very little variation in NAEP scores. Moreover, achievement gaps remain as intractable as ever.
Let’s remember over the past fifty years the federal government has taken an increasingly prominent role in improving student achievement and leveling the playing field for disadvantaged students. The efforts come with a variety of names starting with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the creation of the federal Department of Education by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, continuing through No Child Left Behind by President George W. Bush, as well as the Obama Administration’s role in the Race to the Top Program and the selling of the Common Core State Standards.
More than $2 trillion in inflation-adjusted spending has been sent to the states for programs designed to improve student achievement and close the achievement gap. It hasn’t worked. Scores on 49 of 50 states were stagnant on the 2017 NAEP report card. No one, however, wants to state the obvious.
The real lesson of NAEP scores is that top-down federal intervention and pumping more money into the system has not boosted student achievement or closed the achievement gap in North Carolina or elsewhere.
What federal programs have done is create a growing raft of compliance regulations, strained the time and resources of local schools and slowly created an unhealthy dependence on the federal government, an entity whose support accounts for only 11 percent of all expenditures in North Carolina.
The recent NAEP results are merely several more dots in a trail of evidence that suggest federal efforts to improve education lack success. Liberals and progressives will say poverty is the primary cause of poor test scores and student achievement, and the government doesn’t spend enough to address that problem. Such statements are tiresome. The roots of poverty are far more complex than government programs can address. Such thinking also ignores that real spending for education in North Carolina has gone up as well.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The discontent is not without its benefits, however. It’s fueled alternative education reform efforts, specifically the parental choice movement. Charters schools, Opportunity Scholarships, Special Needs Scholarships and Education Savings Accounts all empower parents in North Carolina to access a better education for their children.
The success and popularity of many of these programs in North Carolina and elsewhere suggests it’s time to return real educational policymaking to the states and empower parents with the ability to choose the best educational option for their child.
We don’t need fifteen more years of flat scores to tell us things aren’t working.