The truth about Ohio's NAEP scores: achievement gaps should inform our definition of "success"

Ohioans, for the most part, understand that strong teachers and good schools are a critical investment in our children's and our state's future. Consider that in 2010, the state invested more than $18.3 billion in K-12 public education ??? roughly $2,078 for every adult living in the Buckeye State.

In fact, school funding in Ohio has steadily increased over the past three decades. Just since 1991, when the first DeRolph lawsuit was filed, per-pupil revenue for Ohio's public schools has risen 60 percent (even accounting for inflation). After decades of steady growth in spending on its schools Ohio now faces a funding cliff. Education in the state is facing cuts of at least $1.3 billion.

The state's schools are being asked to do more with less. How do we do this smartly, without damaging children, especially our neediest? To answer this question it is prudent to look at the data. Where are we making gains? Where are we falling flat? Where do the investments pay off? Where don't they?

The Akron Beacon Journal jumped into the debate with a recent news story and follow-up editorial using NAEP test scores (commonly referred to as the Nation's Report Card) to show Ohio has made ???great improvements??? since the 1990s, especially in math. The paper went so far as to ask readers ???why haven't gains ??? especially for African Americans ??? been trumpeted from the rooftops????

Further, the paper insinuated that Ohio's small gains in math over two decades on the NAEP resulted from increased spending on K-12 education. It said NAEP scores ???make the compelling case to maintain spending levels that sustain the upward trend??? and declared that Ohio communities ???need assurance of honest assessments, not political spin, of student progress.???

It's true ???Ohio students in fourth and eighth grades have made gains in math, but most of these gains were in the 1990s. Further, even with these gains, in 2009 only 39 percent of Ohio's fourth graders were proficient in math while only 34 percent of Ohio's eighth graders were. In reading, 8th grade proficiency rates actually fell from 33 percent in 2002 to 32 percent in 2009. This despite steady spending increases.

It gets worse as you dig deeper. The black-white achievement gap has actually grown since the early 1990s. In 1992, the achievement gap in fourth grade math was 15 percentage points; in 2009 it had yawned to 40 percentage points. In every grade and subject measured the gap has grown over the last two decades, leading one to wonder how the ABJ could declare that gains have been ???extraordinary??? and that we should be happy about the achievement among Ohio's African American students.

Here's another way to look at it. Breaking out the NAEP scores (beyond just pass rates) shows how many students score at an ???advanced??? level. These numbers are abysmal, especially when one considers that academic achievement in other countries is fast outpacing ours. The scores are low for White students ??? in 2009 just 9 percent of fourth and eighth graders scored advanced in math, while 10 percent of fourth graders and four percent of eighth graders did so in reading.

How did African American students do? In looking at the NAEP data spreadsheet, several hash tags appear across columns. The hash tag refers to numbers that ???statistically round to zero.??? African Americans, in most grades, subjects, and years, are relegated to ???zero??? when it comes to advanced achievement. In 2009, in fourth grade math and reading, and eighth grade reading, that number manages to eke upward to one percent.

How's that for ???trumpeting from the roof tops???? In the last two decades, the number of African American students achieving at advanced levels on the NAEP has ??? at best ??? gone from zero to one percent. Even worse, advanced levels among Whites have grown by as much as 450 percent (from 2 percentage points to nine) over the same period.

Remember, these achievements, or lack thereof, came during a time of steady growth in education spending. We now face a funding cliff. Do we keep doing what we've been doing but with leaner rations, or should we try some alternative approaches that might deliver more gains with less? How we deal with this question will determine the success or failure of our state and children for decades to come.

- Terry Ryan & Jamie Davies O'Leary

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