Dust off your talking points, everybody! The new federal National Assessment of Educational Progress test results were released this week, and everybody seems to have a take. (For those of you who don't have the time to sift through the report, there's a good graphical summary here).
To summarize: nationwide, math and reading scores are up a lot for 9-year-olds. They're up less for 13-year-olds, and they remain unchanged (since the 1970s!) for 17-year-olds. That's a good thing, says former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who notes that No Child Left Behind is "not about high school" and says the results "are affirming our accountability-type approach." Not so, says Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, who argues that high schools are "educational dead zones."
What about the achievement gap? Well, good news! Math and reading scores for racial minorities are up. But--wait a minute--the achievement gaps persists, and, as The New York Times reports, No Child Left Behind does not appear to be closing a racial gap. One goal of No Child Left Behind was to close the achivement gap, so that pesky little fact, at least, stands in contradistinction to Margaret Spellings's argument that "what we have paid attention to is working."
So, what's the takeaway? Meh. Either we're doing something right in elementary school, or we're doing something wrong in secondary education. Either our focus on accountability is raising test scores across the board, or our schools are once again failing ethnic minorities. And of course, anytime we have an issue with race and education, the New York Times thinks it's prudent to consult people like Freeman A. Hrabowski III, so that they can quote somebody as saying that smart isn't "cool" for black kids (or that it wasn't in the pre-KIPP, pre-No Child Left Behind, pre-Obama mid-1990s, when his book on the subject was published). In short, educational test data is a Rorschach Test. You see what you want to see--or at least, what your political ideology tells you to see.
(As an aside, I will also note that these test results only deal with math and reading, not with social studies, science, art, physical fitness, or many of the other subjects that have been cut back to make room for supplemental reading and math instruction in many schools. I'll have a lot more to say on that topic in the coming weeks, when I get around to discussing my piece in the Michigan Law Review on the potential illegality of these cutbacks vis-a-vis social studies).
So, read the latest test results as you will--after all, you're probably going to anyway. But for those searching for a takeaway from this week's data, here are my two cents: The latest test scores show that educational accountability might be a good thing, but it's no panacea. The challenges confronting our education system are quite pronounced across all grade levels, but we're really failing secondary students, and high school students in particular. We need to do more to raise test scores for minority and lower-income students, and just telling schools to "raise them" apparently doesn't narrow the achievement gap. And to do that, we need to give kids a wide-ranging and rich educational experience. To the extent that minority kids don't think academic success is cool, maybe it's because academic learning has not yet engaged them.
At least, that's what I see in the inkblot. Maybe somebody else can tell me why I'm wrong, or at least diagnose any personality disorders that might be apparent from my Rorschach results.