The NAEP Spin Room

Yesterday, I wrote about the very rosy interpretation of NAEP data being advanced by Tennessee leaders. Governor Haslam said:

“Today, we’re very excited to say that based on 2015 NAEP results, we’re still the fastest improving state in the nation since 2011. What this means is a new set of fourth- and eighth-graders proved that the gains that we made in 2013 were real.”

After analyzing the Tennessee results and putting them in context with national results (both of which essentially remained steady from 2013) , I noted:

It’s also worth noting that states that have adopted aggressive reforms and states that haven’t both remained flat. The general trend was “holding steady,” and it didn’t seem to matter whether your state was using a reform agenda (charters, vouchers, value-added teacher scores in teacher evaluations) or not.

Again, this makes it difficult to suggest that any one or even a package of educational practices drives change.

Then, I read the statement issued by SCORE (Statewide Collaborative on Reforming Education) Executive Director Jamie Woodson. Here’s what she had to say:

Since 2011, Tennessee has made record-setting gains, held them, and progressed in state rankings because of a multi-faceted strategy of high standards, great teaching, accountability, and common-sense adjustments based on the feedback of educators and citizens.

Note that she assigns causality based on these results. I wonder, then, what to make of the states that didn’t adopt the multi-faceted strategy she references? Last year, a number of states showed significant gains on NAEP. Some, like DC and Tennessee were reform-oriented states, others were not.

Additionally, in a post about the NAEP results two years ago, I noted:

Kentucky and Tennessee have posted gains over time on NAEP — in most categories, Kentucky started out tied or very slightly ahead of Tennessee and today, Kentucky remains ahead.  Kentucky posted some pretty big gains in the mid-90s and again from 2003-2009.  Since then, they’ve held fairly steady.  That’s an expected result, by the way — a big gain followed by steady maintenance of the new level.  For Tennessee, that won’t be enough, but celebrating the big gain is certainly warranted.  It’s also important to take care in assigning causality.

Note here that what I suggested then was an expected result (big gain, followed by holding steady) is exactly what happened in Tennessee this year. That’s good news — it means we’re not declining. But it also means we can’t really say that 2013 was something special.  As I noted last year, Kentucky had a series of big gains in the 1990s and then again in the early 2000s. It wasn’t just a big bump one time. So far, Tennessee has had one banner year (2013) and this year, returned to normal performance.

However, the narrative of “fastest-improving” keeps being repeated. In fact, Bethany Bowman of Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET) released a statement that said in part:
Tennessee students are still the fastest improving in the nation since 2011 according to the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card. “This year’s results from National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) show that Tennessee has maintained the positive gains that we achieved in 2013.

We had one year in which we made a big splash and then, as I noted in 2013:

As the data shows, Kentucky and Tennessee in many cases posted similar net gains over time, with Kentucky seeing big jumps in the mid-90s and again in the early part of the last decade.

That is to say, over a 20-year period, both states saw similar net gains. This year’s scores, in which Tennessee remained steady relative to the 2013 scores suggest, if anything, that the 2013 jump was likely an outlier. Had the 2013 gains been followed by gains in 2015 and again in 2017, more could be suggested. And frankly, it is my hope that we see gains (especially in reading) in 2017. But, it’s problematic to suggest that any specific reform or set of reforms caused the one-time jump we saw in 2013. Saying we are the fastest improving state in the nation over the last 4 years when we only saw a jump in 2013 is like saying we started the first quarter of a football game way behind, scored a bunch in the second quarter, (so we’re not as far behind), and then scored the same number of points in the third quarter. The result is we’re still behind and still have a long way to go.

So, yes, let’s celebrate that we made a big jump and held it steady. But, let’s also put those results in context and focus on how we can move forward instead of using these results to advance our favorite plays. For example, I’m not a huge fan of vouchers, but NAEP data doesn’t really help me make the case for or against. Likewise, states with and without strong collective bargaining posted gains in 2013 and held steady in 2015 — that is, the presence or absence of bargaining has no impact on NAEP scores.

NAEP can be an important source of information — but, too often, the results are subjected to spin that benefits a political agenda. As that narrative gets reinforced, focus on progress can be lost.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

 

 

 

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