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Commentary Education

Kalman Hettleman: Test scores of students nationally and in Md. are shameful but no surprise

Getty Images photo.

We all need to channel the TV anchor in the movie “Network” shrieking, “I’m mad as hell, and I am not going to take it anymore.” The new National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores released on Monday are horrifying.

And yet, most tragically, the new bad news is not all that new.

True, the dire results have been splashed across front page headlines nationwide. The scores show “a massive downward shift” nationwide. Fourth and eighth grade math and reading scores plunged precipitously to historically low levels.

In Maryland the declines since 2019 were steeper than the national average. Fourth graders sank 10 points in math and 7 points in reading; eighth graders sank 11points in math and 5 points in reading. In all, less than one-third of all Maryland students achieved proficiency on the tests.

There’s no escaping the depths of this disaster for our schoolchildren, our state and our country. NAEP is known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” the “gold standard” test given to students in all 50 states (whereas states’ own tests are less rigorous and not comparable to each other).

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona called the national results “appalling.” Maryland state Superintendent of Schools Mohammad Choudhury said the Maryland results were “unacceptable.” And per usual, students who are poor and of color suffered the most.

And yet, while horrified, no one should be surprised. No one can plausibly say that these outcomes were unpredictable. Nor can anyone legitimately blame the pandemic; even COVID-19 learning loss is the tip of the iceberg. Nationwide, the pre-pandemic NAEP results in 2019 reflected a decline from 2017. Maryland’s scores have been going downward since at least 2013.

But isn’t it too soon to draw conclusions about the new bi-annual NAEP data since it varies widely by state, grade and subject and will be subject to dissection and debate for months and years ahead? The answer: Hell no.

Data from the Maryland State Department of Education.

We have known for years what it will take for deep school reform, especially in literacy. And Maryland has lagged woefully, as detailed in my commentary in these pages a year ago, “Maryland Inexcusably Slams Shut the Gateway to Literacy.” The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future is a big step forward, but the Maryland State Department of Education has yet to come up with a detailed plan to ensure that what works in reading and math — the science of learning, evidence-based interventions for struggling learners and stronger teacher preparation — will be implemented effectively in all local school systems.

Our backwardness in reading is particularly acute. Maryland’s weak Ready to Read Act, enacted in 2019, trails the comprehensive “right to read” laws in many other states. Even the Blueprint does not adequately fill in all the gaps. And least excusably, MSDE has halted work begun before the pandemic which would have put more teeth into the Ready to Read Act.

While my main work focuses on literacy, the NAEP picture is even bleaker for math than reading. That compounds the complexity of the reform tasks that lie ahead and increases competition for scarce school funding. Just last week, the Gates Foundation announced an eye-popping investment of $1.1 billion for K-12 math over the next four years, which will probably cause some states and local districts to shift some financial resources from literacy.

The Gates initiative is bold and commendable (although Maryland is not one of the states targeted initially). Still, all education policymakers need to keep in mind how upper levels of math depend on good reading skills. A few years ago, an article published by the Brookings Institution was titled “A counterintuitive approach to improving math education: Focus on English language arts.”

All told, the NAEP results underscore how far our nation and state have to go to fulfill the right of all children to adequate educational opportunity. In 1983 the most famous education report in our history, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, declared: “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”

That we have progressed so little over so long may affect forthcoming analyses and renewed education wars over the NAEP scores. But perspective is a starting point. The results didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know, COVID 19 is no excuse, and generations of schoolchildren are innocent victims.

Still, perspective must inform action. We must immediately react with outrage, act with fresh urgency, and accelerate implementation of the Blueprint. Let’s hope the new governor and General Assembly will lead the way.