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Mystery On The Bayou

Louisiana’s NAEP scores fell in 2017, but it’s not at all clear why they dropped

Results from the latest round of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – also known as “The Nation’s Report Card” – were released on Tuesday.

Nationally, performance on the bi-annual assessment of fourth and eighth grade students remained more-or-less unchanged from the previous administration of NAEP in 2015, although the average score on the eighth grade reading exam did see a slight uptick.

Unfortunately, the NAEP results for my home state of Louisiana were even more disappointing. Fourth grade reading and math scores both fell, while eighth grade reading and math scores remained flat.

 

As might be expected, opponents of Louisiana’s education reforms have seized upon the results as evidence that those policies have failed, and in particular have sought to pin the blame for the NAEP score drop on State Superintendent John White.

For example, Michael Deshotels, a former executive director of the Louisiana Association of Educators who is now a paid lobbyist for the union, claimed in a recent blog post that the NAEP results prove White “has failed miserably at all his efforts and our children have suffered while he experimented with untested, unsound theories.”

Michael Deshotels and John White.

In truth, Deshotels’ attack is little more than a politically-motivated and wholly unoriginal cheap shot from someone who’s been on the losing side of Louisiana’s education reform battles over the past 20 years.

Every time NAEP results are released, education advocates of all stripes attempt to tie the rise or fall of scores to policies they either espouse or oppose. Consequentially, every two years education experts find themselves compelled to remind everyone that it’s very difficult to establish a causal relationship between NAEP scores and specific policies. Folks like Deshotels (or “statistician” Mercedes Schneider) who insist that this year’s NAEP scores “prove” that Louisiana’s reforms have failed clearly haven’t gotten that message in their heads.

Nevertheless, the drop in Louisiana’s NAEP scores is something of a mystery for a couple of reasons. First of all, the state saw statistically-significant jumps in fourth grade reading and math scores in NAEP in 2015, yet those gains were reversed in the recently released results. It’s hard to discern the possible causes behind the decline because there hasn’t been any radical shifts in education policy over the past two years. There also hasn’t been a dramatic overhaul or controversy (like we experienced during the transition to Common Core) that one could point to as a possible explanation.

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More students qualified for TOPS last year ever before, thanks to the steady rise in ACT scores.

The overall drop in NAEP scores is doubly confounding when one considers that so many other measures of educational progress in the state are trending in the other direction. On Tuesday, the same day NAEP results went public, the Louisiana Department of Education announced (hat tip to the comms folks at LDOE on the timing 😏) that the Class of 2017 was the first in state’s history to have more than 50 percent of students qualify for the TOPS college scholarship program, thanks to the steady rise in ACT scores over the past six years. Moreover, the state has made significant gains in its cohort graduation rate, A.P. participation and test results, and college matriculation over the same period.

In an effort to explain the decline, State Superintendent White has raised the question of whether the shift to computer-based testing in the most recent NAEP assessment could have negatively impacted scores, especially in poorer states like Louisiana where many children have limited access to technology. Previous studies have shown that students tend to do worse on digitally-administered exams when compared to the traditional paper-and-pencil format.

Officials with the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP exams, maintain that they took several measures to ensure that the switch to computer-based testing would not have an impact on the results and have promised to release further information on those steps to White and other state education leaders who request it.

While the cause(s) behind the drop in Louisiana’s NAEP scores may remain a mystery – at least for now – it’s important to keep in mind that we shouldn’t blindly jump to conclusions. This year’s disappointing results should certainly prompt educators and policymakers to step back, reassess, identify opportunities for improvement, but there’s plenty of evidence to show that public education in Louisiana has made tremendous progress over the past decade.

A single set of NAEP scores doesn’t suddenly change that fact.

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Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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