Or are they just doing the same as they’ve always done…?
It’s a question that jumped to mind when I read a post by Kevin Drum where he questions the assertion that high school students are worse prepared than they were in the past and provides this chart as evidence that the logic behind that thought might be flawed…
Now, there are lots of ways to read this chart. We could focus on the fact that the gap between whites and minorities has not been closed. We could also focus on why scores shot up in the early 80s for minorities as a potential starting point for determining what solutions we might seek to emulate today.
But my eye just keeps finding it’s way back to the relative stability of the scores post 1980. Now, some may say that this is misleading because the tests are not the same as in 1980 and have gotten easier. Perhaps…I really don’t know. But absent that explanation, it doesn’t seem like high schools and their students are performing any worse than they were 30 years ago.
So why all the commotion and attention now?
Well, one thought that I have is that NEAP captures all students – that is, those in public and private schools. In fact, their sample reads as follows:
Who are the students assessed by NAEP?
The national results are based on a representative sample of students in public schools, private schools,Bureau of Indian Education schools, and Department of Defense schools. Private schools include Catholic, Conservative Christian, Lutheran, and other private schools.
And clearly, when people talk about schools being in crisis, they are pointing towards public schools. But based on the chart above, it seems entirely plausible, potentially likely even, that this crisis in public schools is not so much a result of schools getting worse as much as it is the mix of students changing…
That is to say that as higher performing white students have fled public schools for private schools, the national average scores may stay the same, but public schools, now with a higher concentration of lower performing minority students are now doing worse.
Now, that’s relatively simple math. Schools, teachers and students may not be doing any worse than they did before. This is important to acknowledge because what’s been portrayed has been the exact opposite. And while I don’t think that this simple math should stop efforts to improve learning, I do think it should inform these efforts. We can still say that what’s being done is not good enough (clearly it’s not good enough as the white-minority gap remains), but context is essential to getting the right answers to the problem, determining the right sources to spur improvement and avoiding simplifications or false foundations for arguments.