The news from the education front is not good. We should not jump to stark conclusions from one year’s test results, but American schoolchildren in the fourth and eighth grades are not doing well. Their proficiency in reading and math has, on a year-over-year basis, declined.
At a time when mathematics is becoming increasingly important for future careers, American children are falling further behind. The question is not whether they can compete with the children in Singapore or Helsinki. They are doing worse than their own cohorts did two years ago… and worse than every other time since the tests were first given in 1990.
Surely, this is why President Obama offered up his own solution to the problem: don’t test the children so much. After all, if they don’t take tests they cannot fail at the tests. It's like saying that we can reduce the crime rate by not arresting so many people.
One must also note that many parents have opted out of the tests… because they do not agree with what Washington is trying to impose on them under the name of Common Core.
Brilliant… this is what seven years of Obama education policy has gotten us.
The New York Times reports:
For the first time since 1990, the mathematical skills of American students have dropped, according to results of a nationwide test released by the Education Department on Wednesday.
The decline appeared in both Grades 4 and 8 in an exam administered every two years as the National Assessment of Educational Progressand sometimes called “the nation’s report card.”
The dip in scores comes as the country’s employers demand workers with ever-stronger skills in mathematics to compete in a global economy. It also comes as states grapple with the new Common Core academic standards and a rebellion against them.
As for language skills, the results are also discouraging:
Progress in reading, which has been generally more muted than in math for decades, also stalled this year as scores among fourth graders flat-lined and eighth-grade scores decreased. The exams assess a representative sampling of students on math and reading skills in public and private schools.
But, what does it all mean? Several interpretations offer themselves:
Education officials said that the first-time decline in math scores was unexpected, but that it could be related to changes ushered in by the Common Core standards, which have been adopted by more than 40 states. For example, some of the fourth-grade math questions on data analysis, statistics and geometry are not part of that grade’s guidelines under the Common Core and so might not have been covered in class. The largest score drops on the fourth-grade math exams were on questions related to those topics.
The stagnating performance could also reflect the demographic changes sweeping America’s schools and the persistent achievement gap between white students and minorities, as well as between students from poor families and their more affluent peers.
One hypothesis is that it is the fault of Common Core. The Times considers this possibility:
As states have adopted the Common Core — guidelines for what students should know and be able to do between kindergarten and high school — many teachers have adjusted their curriculum and instructional methods, particularly in math. Students are asked to use math to solve real-life problems and find different ways to come at the same answer rather than simply repeating formulas.
Some educators suggested that some of the changes have sowed confusion among teachers and students that could be reflected in the national test scores. “Right now, what’s going on in many states is a wholesale change in math instruction,” said Daniel Koretz, a professor of education at Harvard. “We don’t know what’s happening with that in classrooms.”
One has had occasion to comment on this before, but the point should be made again: children learn math better by memorizing and applying formulas by rote. By forcing them to think about all the different ways they can find the same answer and by casting the multiplication tables in terms of solving real life problems, teachers are slowing down the learning process.
The Times also notes that some of the topics on the eighth grade math test were not covered in the new Common Core curriculum. This suggests, if I read it correctly, that Common Core is less challenging that previous teaching methods.
And then there are demographics. America’s schools have very recently seen an influx of poor, uneducated children from Mexico and Central America. Surely, these children are dragging down the scores, but their presence might also be slowing down the pace of classroom instruction.
The Times does offer the following on demographics:
About a quarter of public school students are Hispanic, compared with fewer than 10 percent in 1990. As a group, the scores of Hispanic students trail those of white students; this year, for example, 21 percent of Hispanic fourth graders scored at a level deemed proficient or above on reading tests, compared with 46 percent of white students.
The proportion of African-American students in public schools has remained fairly stable, but an achievement gap with white students remains. On the fourth-grade reading tests this year, just 18 percent of black students were deemed proficient.
America’s schoolchildren are also increasingly poor. Students from poor families often arrive at school with smaller vocabularies than students from middle-class or more affluent households, and are faced with challenges like hunger, homelessness and parents working several jobs, all of which can interfere with their learning in school and the academic support they receive at home — and ultimately their test scores.
Of course, the problem is not the difference between the percentage of Hispanic children in 1990 vs. the percentage today. The scores increased every year from 1990 until 2013. Thus, we should be looking for a more proximate cause.
In fact, the scores are compared to those from 2013. The Times has the statistics:
The average fourth-grade math score this year was 240 on a scale of 500, down from 242 in 2013, the last time the federal assessment results were released. The average eighth-grade math score was 282, down from 285 two years ago.
In reading, the average fourth-grade score of 223, compared with 222 in 2013, was not a statistically significant difference. The average eighth-grade score fell to 265 from 268.
Also, it is frightening to see that when it comes to reading proficiency among fourth graders, white children score 46%, Hispanic children score 21% and black children score 18%. The scores are appalling.
One is confident that poverty plays an important role in some cases, and one suspects that there is more poverty among black and Hispanic students than there is among white students. And, what happened to the Asian students? You know, the ones who are being brought up by the dread Tiger Moms. What are their proficiency rates?
If the poverty rate in minority communities has recently increased and if the schools have been forced to use Common Core teaching methods, one is obliged to say that much of the fault must lie with the presidency of Barack Obama.
To keep it all in balance, we also must note that many of these schools have adopted Michelle Obama’s signature healthy foods program. Since many children are refusing to eat these so-called healthy meals, one might also conclude that they are doing badly on their tests because they are malnourished.