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Mission Accomplished?

Tuesday marked the release of the 2008 wave of data from the long-term trend component of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). NAEP has been around since about 1970, and the long-term trend component has been administered every few years to 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds since 1971. The long-term trend data are best at charting changes over long periods of time, as the content and format of the test items in reading and math have been relatively stable over the nearly four decades since the federal government began tracking student achievement at the national level. The flip side of this is that the test is not closely aligned with the contemporary curricular frameworks in reading and math devised by states or by the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB). For this reason, the NAEP long-term trend data are a poor basis for a referendum on the successes of failures of No Child Left Behind—or any other recent education policy reform.

That, of course, didn’t stop former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings from declaring victory. Remember the good old days, when politicians left office gracefully and didn’t try to rehabilitate themselves by rewriting history in the first 100 days of a new administration? Sam Dillon’s New York Times article quotes former Madame Secretary as saying, “It’s not an accident that we’re seeing the most improvement where N.C.L.B. has focused most vigorously … The law focuses on math and reading in grades three through eight – it’s not about high schools. So these results are affirming of our accountability type approach.”

Ah, skoolboy sees. The requirement that all schools be judged on whether they are making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), and not just elementary and middle schools—that’s just for symmetry, not because anyone wanted to hold high schools accountable for student performance. The requirement of testing reading and math at least once in grades 10 through 12—how did that ever slip through? And a gentle reminder, Madame Secretary: The 92% of the 17-year-olds in the 2008 NAEP sample who attended public schools, and showed no significant change in reading or math performance? They all were subject to several years of NCLB accountability in their middle school years.

But I want to emphasize that my ridiculing of Madame Secretary’s efforts to vindicate NCLB isn’t based on the NAEP long-term trend data. Those data simply don’t tell us much about recent trends in students’ academic performance under contemporary content standards, and are ill-equipped to inform debates about which features of NCLB have been beneficial, and which have not. There’s plenty of other evidence out there to draw upon.

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