Data is Essential to Improve Student Outcomes

An Essay by Holly Kuzmich, Executive Director of the George W. Bush Institute

While it's important that we tend to the immediate needs of our students and focus on how to reopen schools safely, we can't lose track of the need to improve our national education performance.

Taking a look at the state of our nation’s schools right now presents a not terribly optimistic picture.  On overall national performance, trends are moving in the wrong direction. Reading and math achievement are flat or down.  Gaps between racial groups continue to exist and are not closing.

Ten years ago, though, the opposite would have been said. At that time, we were seeing outcomes improve in reading and math, especially for Black and Hispanic students. Gaps were closing.

In a time when COVID-19 is the overwhelming issue facing our nation’s schools, we need to attend to the immediate needs of our students.  That means focusing on how to reopen schools. But, it’s also important to remember where we are, even without the daily realities of a pandemic.  As a country, the progress we had been making has stalled, and we need to understand what’s behind that.

As a country, the progress we had been making has stalled, and we need to understand what’s behind that.

A look at our national results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) gives us this picture. Changes over the past 30 years in math for both fourth and eighth graders show notable progress.  Scores increased by 28 points for fourth graders and 19 points for eighth-graders between 1990 and 2019. But if you take a closer look, you’ll see that the progress came between 1990 and 2009, and that scores have remained flat for the last 10 years.

In reading, progress has been slower, but still significant enough in certain areas to merit attention.  There was no improvement in the 1990s and over the past 10 years, from 2009 to 2019.  But there was steady improvement in the 2000s, when scores improved by eight points between 2000 and 2009.

In both reading and math, a deeper study of results shows that when progress was made in the 1990s and especially in the 2000s, the students who made the most gains were Black and Hispanic. Black and Hispanic fourth graders made nearly double the progress that all students had in reading, improving by 15 points between 2000 and 2009, compared with eight points for all students. A similar story is shown in the math results.

What was happening between 1990 and 2009? And then, what has been happening over the past 10 years? In a piece they wrote five years ago for the Bush Institute, Bill McKenzie and Sandy Kress detailed the standards and accountability movement that gained steam over the past several decades — starting with the report “A Nation At Risk” in the 1980s that outlined how schools in the United States were falling behind those around the world. The movement continued under both Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, with pushes to put in place high standards for all students and assessments aligned to those standards.

When George W. Bush became President, he accelerated the standards and accountability movement through the No Child Left Behind Act. That Act required that state assessments be given annually in reading and math in grades three through eight and that results be disaggregated by race, income, disability, and gender. In the same way that I was able to break down results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress for different groups of students, this was now required of state assessments. 

Since NAEP only tests a sample of students to give representative results, however, there’s no way to use that test to understand how individual districts or schools are doing. That’s why disaggregated data from state assessments, which are given to all students in a state, has proven so important in providing a regular, annual check on the system.

Along with that disaggregated, annual data, there was a focus on improving instruction for the students who were furthest behind and on improving the lowest-performing schools.

Despite the gains that continued to accelerate in the 2000s, significant pushback came to the standards and accountability movement. As McKenzie and Kress pointed out, there have been many factors leading to that pushback. Some of it is human nature — it’s difficult and exhausting to sustain the hard work.  Some of it has been due to unintended actions like overtesting that have caused parents and educators to push back on any form of assessment. Some of it is due to poor implementation or confusion. And some of it has been intentional — teachers’ unions have long been opposed to regular statewide assessments and financed campaigns to denigrate the tests.

There are many lessons to be learned about why the push for standards and accountability stalled out and what our mistakes were along the way. But, it would be an even bigger mistake to forget that regular assessments and accountability improved reading and math outcomes for exactly the students who need it the most.

There are many lessons to be learned about why the push for standards and accountability stalled out and what our mistakes were along the way. But, it would be an even bigger mistake to forget that regular assessments and accountability improved reading and math outcomes for exactly the students who need it the most.

One state that is showing us the way is Mississippi. In 2013, the state began to put significant funding into teaching teachers the science of reading. Since that time, their results have improved significantly.  While fourth grade reading scores for the United States have declined over the past six years, Mississippi has increased scores by 10 points. The state has made more progress in that period of time than any other state in the country.

And once again, outcomes for Black and Hispanic students outpaced those of White students; Black fourth graders improved 12 points and Hispanic fourth graders improved by 15 points, whereas white students improved by 8 points.  Closing these in a child’s education is so important in order to lead to a lifetime of opportunity.

If Mississippi can do it, so can others. But unfortunately, it is one of the few states over the past decade to show this kind of progress. We need to get to a time when Mississippi is the rule, not the exception.

Immediate discussions and decisions about school are naturally going to be about the pandemic. But as soon as we get through this, my hope is that we’ll get back to looking at the fundamentals of what it takes to truly move the needle on improving outcomes for kids. We have evidence of when and how this has worked in the past, and it would be a shame to dismiss it.

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