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U.S. math performance drops on NAEP. Georgia has higher standards. Do we have higher commitment?

The national drop in math performance seen today in the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress – the first decline after 20 years of a steady climb -- has triggered a lot of fretting and speculating on why scores faltered.

In a statement, Georgia School Superintendent Richard Woods said, "These results underscore the importance of strengthening our students’ foundational skills in reading and math. At the state level, we’re committed to supporting districts in that work by producing better resources for teachers, fully vetting any new standards and initiatives, and providing greater flexibility so schools have room to innovate.”

Here are some examples of what's being said this morning about the newly released NAEP data:

From Education Week's Curriculum Matters blog :

William J. Bushaw, the executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, noted that "curricular uncertainty"—likely a nod to the curriculum changes many districts are making to meet the Common Core State Standards—may be a factor in the drop in scores. "The majority of our schools are undergoing significant changes in how and what we teach our students," he said. "It's not unusual when you see lots of different things happening in classrooms to see a decline before you see improvement."

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a media call about the results yesterday that this sort of "implementation dip" is fairly common. He pointed to Massachusetts, which saw a drop in test scores after raising standards two decades ago, before becoming a consistently high-achieving state. "This is the ultimate long-term play," he said.

From former Montgomery County, Md., superintendent Joshua Star on Twitter:

Higher standards+less funding+more vulnerable kids+bad reform policies+uneven CCSS implementation=lower #NAEP math scores

— Joshua Starr (@JoshuaPStarr) October 28, 2015

Writing for the Washington Post's Answer Sheet blog  this morning, Carol Burris, head of the Network for Public Education, addresses both the drop in NAEP and the SAT:

Although NAEP and the SAT were not designed to align to the Common Core, they measure what the Common Core Standards were supposed to improve—the literacy and numeracy of our nation’s students. Considering the billions of dollars spent on these reforms, one would expect at least some payoff by now.

The fans of reforms are already beginning the spin. Some are blaming demographic changes (which conveniently ignores the drop in white student scores on 3 of the 4 tests), while others are attributing the stagnation to the economy (which was far worse in 2011). The very folks who gleefully hold public schools accountable based on scores, evade using them to evaluate their own pet policies. For those of us who had first row seats to the disruption and chaos they have caused, we have one simple message—no excuses

In his blog, education researcher Morgan Polikoff  cautions against blaming the slip on any one policy:

These results are quite disappointing and shouldn’t be sugar-coated. Especially in mathematics, where we’ve seen literally two decades of uninterrupted progress, it’s (frankly) shocking to see declines like this. We’ve become almost expectant of the slow-but-steady increase in NAEP scores, and this release should shake that complacency.

To a large extent, what actually caused these results (Common Core? Implementation? Teacher evaluation? Waivers? The economy? Opt-out? Something else?) is irrelevant in the court of public opinion. Perception is what matters. And the perception, fueled by charlatans and naifs, will be that Common Core is to blame. I wouldn’t be surprised if these results led to renewed repeal efforts for both the standards and the assessments in a number of states, even if there is, as yet, no evidence that these policies are harmful.

I would recommend this report for a deeper dive on what NAEP scores tell us.

I would like to add one topic to the mix: In Georgia and throughout the nation, we have changed our expectations for what our kids need to know and be able to do in mathematics.

Did we have parent buy-in first?

Even in my local Georgia system where dual Ph.D parents expect their kids prepared for the likes of Stanford and Duke, I hear complaints about the amount of homework and the stress on kids from juggling soccer, schoolwork and social life. My district is now an International Baccalaureate system, which has elevated the depth of instruction and the time required of students.

Many parents believe high school ought to be fun and teens should not have to study two or three hours a night and on weekends to earn top grades. (If you search out IB discussions online, you will find many students consider three hours of homework the norm.)

I go back to what a noted mathematician said to me: Math is hard. It is not fun. Mastery requires time and struggle even for those who love it and excel at math.

I recently talked to three college exchange students, two from Asia and one from Europe, about the differences they see in their American classmates in their math and science programs.

The trio said American students want college to be socially rewarding. American students are bright; they are just not willing to make school their only priority, they said. In essence, they felt while they see college as the path to a good life, American students see college as the good life.

Yes, we have to look at how we're teaching math and who’s teaching it. When higher math standards were first being discussed in Georgia, many middle school math teachers, surveyed by the state DOE, said they were unprepared to teach to the higher standards.

The on-the-cheap training method DOE used at the time – train the trainer – was insufficient. (DOE was hampered by a Legislature that provided no real funding, which is why the agency focused on teaching a few teachers who were expected to go back to their districts and teach everyone else.)

Beyond teachers and curriculum, we have to consider whether we have helped parents understand their role in ushering their children into this new era of higher math standards. Also, we have to ask whether we've made the case to students themselves on why elevated math standards are vital and worth their time and commitment.















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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.