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What the 'Nation's Report Card' Means for the Future of Education

Math and reading scores are mostly flat, and the achievement gap persists. What should education advocates do?

The latest data from the National Assessment of Education Progress, the biennial standardized test known as "The Nation’s Report Card," show that the achievement gap persists. Although student scores have improved across the board since the test was created in 1990—particularly in math—white students still score significantly higher than their black and Hispanic peers. And despite all of the education reform efforts aimed at improving test scores, overall student gains in reading and math are up only slightly since 2009.

Fourth grade reading scores stayed steady since 2009, while math marks increased 1 percent. Similarly, eighth graders scored about 1 percent higher in both reading and math compared to 2009. The results led Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss to quip, "Someone should be printing up a T-shirt about now that says: ‘My nation spent billions on testing and all I got was a 1-point gain.'"

Indeed, in the decade of No Child Left Behind, the nation has spent big bucks on testing students and rating schools without making a major dent in the achievement gap. President Obama’s Race to the Top competition—which has increased the number charter schools, overhauled entire schools' staffs, and doubled down on testing—hasn't solved the problem either, according to the NAEP scores. The question for education advocates now is where to go from here.

Some will argue that the reform efforts simply need more time to take effect, but budget cuts and the growing number of students living in poverty are the bigger problems. Teaching assistants that used to help tutor students have been laid off, while class sizes have gone through the roof, making it tougher for even the most skilled teacher to provide individual attention to students. And while reformers suggest solutions like flipping classrooms so students can use technology to get up to speed, too many children live without computers at home and too few schools are well-equipped technologically.

Last spring, a working group at Harvard called Futures of School Reform, concluded that the next frontier of education reform will acknowledge that our system can't "achieve their goal of ‘all students at proficiency’ unless they attend to nonschool factors." The group said this shift would happen "as an outgrowth of the same hard-nosed, pragmatic, evidence-based orientation that for the moment is supporting the unlikely claim that schools can do it alone."

This NAEP data is evidence that the group's conclusion was spot-on. It's time to step up and tackle child poverty and the systemic problems in neighborhoods at the same time we're working to improve teaching and learning. If we address the root causes of the achievement gap while fully funding our public schools, just imagine how those scores would skyrocket. But in the absence of that type of concerted approach, chances are we'll see a similar data set from the NAEP two years from now—one that tells the same disappointing story.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Liz (

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