Beware of NAEP Test Score Spin

Today, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released state-by-state test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  Comparing 2022 scores with pre-COVID numbers from 2019 has been the major focus of media coverage.

Policymakers and the public are naturally eager to find out just how badly the pandemic damaged student learning. But reporters should be wary of NAEP data spin.

Those who want to radically alter our system of public education through privatization, charters, vouchers, and even more standardized testing will undoubtedly try to frame any score decrease as evidence for their preferred policies to alleviate “learning loss.”  The numbers, however, will provide no such guidance.  

Given that Monday’s state-by-state NAEP data mirror September’s national trends, as expected, we are getting an even greater cry of panic over “learning loss” and a call for dramatic interventions to catch students up. Such reactions are not justified. The September scores reflected the toll that the pandemic exacted. State-by-state numbers affirm what educators and parents already know – the pandemic was bad for kids.  But now that children are back in school, in-person learning has gone back to normal. 

In all likelihood, scores for future 4th and 8th graders will revert to more normal patterns. We will need to see what happens to students as they age to see whether the pandemic score plunge dissipates over time. Learning, however, should not be viewed as a race against the clock.  The point is to get students to the finish line on the prescribed course accounting for the obstacles in their path.

In any event, claims that specific policy decisions in one state or district caused lower or higher scores often rest on a shaky foundation. NAEP data can show where scores are going up or down, but the test can’t say why. But that won’t stop interested advocates from making unfounded arguments of causation.  

The politics of this NAEP release, given the capacity for state-by-state comparisons, promises to be heated.  They will no doubt be wielded by politicians and ideologues to justify their policies regarding school closure during the pandemic.  If any state fared significantly better than others, expect them to try to score points. If a state did worse than others, challengers for office will undoubtedly try to leverage that fact politically.  

While there is no question that in-person learning is superior to all-remote learning, test results are not a simple product of one particular factor or policy.  Test scores cannot be the sole measure of school quality, as inputs, attendance, surveys of stakeholder satisfaction, success of graduates, and a variety of other factors should go into that determination.  Nor should declining NAEP scores be used to conclude that public education is a failure. They are not evidence of the desirability of privatization, vouchers, untested classroom technology or any other radical silver bullets. In 2022, the overriding factor in any unusually large decline from 2019 to 2022 can be boiled down to one word–COVID.

Above all, the NAEP results shouldn’t precipitate a call for more tests.  The beauty of the NAEP sampling system is that standardized exam results do not have high stakes consequences for students and schools.  The punitive testing regime of No Child Left Behind was an abject failure.   Reverting to more testing of students, including commercially packaged interim assessments allegedly designed to help teachers target their practice, will only undermine student learning.  

The one conclusion the NAEP results may give us is that classroom learning time matters. Time taken up by constant testing drains that essential resource.  NAEP is enough; properly analyzing the results will tell us where we are and where we have to concentrate resources.    

What does matter?  That we invest in schools, that we make sure that there are qualified teachers in our neediest communities to address the disparities in learning among socioeconomic and racial subgroups, and that we deal with the social and emotional traumas that students have experienced as a result of the pandemic. If we focus on multiple indicators of school quality, maintaining an adequate supply of well-trained professional teachers, and providing schools with the resources they need, positive long-term trends in NAEP scores are more likely to follow.