If the signs reflecting stagnant student achievement in the US were only coming from the Program for International Assessment, I might not be as worried as I am. You know the argument: Since our standards are not generally aligned with those of PISA and our teachers thus don’t teach to them, PISA results may not be an accurate measure of teaching and learning in these United States.
The problem is that PISA trends have begun to mirror – at least broadly – what we have seen in the last decade in our own National Assessment of Educational Progress. From 2009-2015, we saw absolute stagnation in the NAEP. One can see this generally in both national and state trends. Shockingly, even in the vast majority of states that were deemed as “doing things right” by the federal government and given additional funds under the Race to the Top program, there were no gains. This is contrast to the gains we made from 1999 to 2009, especially during the full implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act.
While one wants to be very careful about asserting cause or correlation, there are similar patterns in the PISA results. The 15-year-olds in the US who were assessed in science and math on the PISA improved from 2006 to 2009 by 13 points. Had our students made similar gains in subsequent years, we would have passed PISA averages and the results of many nations that have been ahead of us in the past.
Yet, from 2009-2015, US students fell back on PISA, by a depressing 18 points in math and 6 points in science. Thus, over the decade, we lost half our earlier gain in science and the entire gain and another 5 points in math. This backward motion is no way to catch up against our competitors. It certainly is no way to excel.
There are – to be sure – some data in PISA that show a decade-long improvement in the achievement of our lowest-performing students. This could be a sign that the No Child Left Behind Act’s emphasis on addressing achievement gaps continued to provide great benefits beyond the years of full implementation. But we don’t see a positive impact at any percentile level or in the overall achievement data. So, this little piece of progress is positive but of too little comfort to overcome the significant losses we experienced in the past six years.
The big question arises: what caused this recent stagnation in both NAEP and PISA?
We must be modest in trying to answer that question. There are no scientific studies that are definitive. We do not know causality with certainty. But we can suggest hypotheses, based on earlier research and reason that merit consideration.
We know that, as indicated in abundant research, that accountability drives improvement in student achievement. Accountability in the states and the nation reached its high point in the late 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century. And student achievement gains in that period far exceeded those of both prior and subsequent years.
But starting in 2009, the Obama Administration began weakening the accountability measures contained in No Child. Instead of addressing aspects of the law that could have been fixed with simple tweaks (or with a full reauthorization), the administration’s leadership at the U.S. Department of Education granted waivers that allowed states to water down accountability requirements in numerous important ways. Tragically, the waivers that brought about the weakening proved to be a true pig in a poke. Accountability was significantly lost, and the “reforms” for which it was waived either have never materialized beyond the paper they were written on or have gradually dissipated.
It’s particularly sad that the only “good news” that’s cited in the midst of these awful recent trends is the improvement in graduation rates. Yet, grad rates are the consummate lagging indicator. All the graduates who walked the stage since 2009 and by 2015 were 7th graders or older in 2009. There’s little evidence that policy in recent years improved the graduation of these students – and even worse, there is some evidence that states are once again gaming graduation rates. Instead of unjustified high fives, we ought to worry that our reduced accountability since 2009 will actually retard further improvements in graduation rates as today’s students approach high school.
I regret being pessimistic. But the truth is I see things getting worse in future years.
Awful recent policy decisions, such as the so-called Every Student Succeeds Act, will weaken accountability and slow progress even more. Unbelievably, the newest ideas flowing from this past election cycle may portend a less coherent and more harmful policy going forward. All this has yet to be “baked in the cake.” So, is it possible that we’ll see greater deterioration in future NAEP and PISA results? I believe we will.