One of the more interesting stories about the recent release of scores on the 2017 National Assessment of Education Progress (aka. The Nation's Report Card) is not about the scores themselves but the way conservative education policy operatives are spinning them.
The scores themselves were disappointing.
As US News reports, fourth- and eighth-graders, the only two grades tested, "made little to no gains in math and reading since 2015," the last year the NAEP was conducted. "While the average reading scores for eighth-graders increased compared with 2015, there were no changes for reading at fourth grade or for math at either grade."
Not only were scores flat, as they have mostly been since 2009, but "the latest results reveal a disturbing trend in which the country's poorest-performing students scored worse in both subjects."
The 2017 scores were not as bad as scores in 2015, which showed statistically significant dips, but the general lack of progress in this year's results gave education policy mavens fodder to make all sorts of claims.
Who's to Blame
Education pundits from the right were quick to locate the cause of such a prolonged stagnation.
Mike Petrilli of the conservative Beltway policy shop Thomas B. Fordham dubbed NAEP doldrums "the lost decade," which, by his reckoning, would take the timeline for stagnant NAEP scores back to 2008. And we all know what happened that year.
The arch-conservative Heritage Foundation is much more blunt, saying, "The scores are a particular indictment of Obama-era education policies, including historically high levels of spending, the addition of new programs, numerous federal directives, and perhaps most consequentially, Common Core."
What's downright laughable is the preposterous notion that the nation's supposedly anemic academic achievement began immediately as the Obama administration took office. All those nine- and thirteen-year-olds who generated flat scores from 2009 to 2015 spent precious little of their academic careers under Obama.
Indeed, if we were to play the pin the NAEP tail on the presidential donkey, we would be looking at that guy who preceded Obama – George W. Bush.
And that's what's so ironic about conservative claims of an Obama education policy failure. Over at least the past 20 years, whether under Republican oversight or Democratic, the nation's schools have been lorded over by an "education reform" agenda that has always been decidedly bipartisan.
The chronology of education reform's widespread impact on the nation's schools begins with the enactment in 2002 of No Child Left Behind, a bipartisan law that began the regime of requiring states to test every student every year in reading and math and using the scores to evaluate schools and determine all sorts of consequences as a result of their scores.
The Obama administration upped the ante by using test scores to evaluate teachers too and developed even more elaborate actions to take when schools had poor results.
Throughout both presidential administrations, there was an assumption that stoking the system with more charter schools to compete with public schools would yield improvements, and although Common Core curriculum standards pushed by Obama became a flashpoint of dispute, both Democrats and Republicans insisted schools needed some sort of "higher standards" to "raise the bar" for students.
Sure, there were lots of policy nuances over the years that may have divided the parties – including the extent of the federal government's influence on implementation of the policies – but the test-and-punish, standards enforced, and market-base competition philosophy of reform was a Washington Consensus uniting both parties.
It's not surprising conservatives would bend NAEP results to an agenda.
Scores are often used to justify or vilify whatever education policy the author prefers.
Because scores are broken down by student demographics and reported out for the nation as a whole, for each state and the District of Columbia, and more recently, for many large municipal school districts, there is a wealth of speculative conclusions that can be derived.
This is not to say NAEP scores are useless. But there's a whole genre of education punditry called “misNAEPery” that exemplifies the way scores are used to make false claims about what "works" in schools.
For instance, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan used NAEP results for Tennessee from 2009 to 2013 to claim the state's embrace of reform policies he preferred – including basing teacher evaluations on test scores and turning over struggling schools to charter management organizations – was proof his reform policies were working. But the claim was roundly debunked by more careful observers, and the state's scores were flat in 2015 and somewhat down this year.
Similarly this year, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called out NAEP results in Florida, a state she has long touted as a model for other states to follow. Yet many states with education policies similar to Florida's – including vouchers, charter schools, and performance grades for schools – had lackluster NAEP results in 2017, including Arizona, Louisiana, and North Carolina.
But why would Republicans reject reform now?
Stealing Away from Reform
"Educators, scholars and policymakers now almost universally regard No Child Left Behind as a washout," writes education historian and college professor Jack Schneider. "And many critiques of Obama-era reform efforts have been equally blistering."
DeVos has made it clear she believes nothing Obama or Bush did in education reform really worked. States ruled by Republican governors are abandoning Obama-era test-based teacher evaluations right and left. And influential Beltway education policy poohbahs have posted reflective tomes in which they admit they may have gotten some things about reform wrong.
Meanwhile, Democrats like Arne Duncan fight a rearguard battle to defend reform policies, performing feats of MisNAEPery including going all the way back to 1971 to conflate strong growth in test scores in the 80s and 90s with the general stagnation since 2000.
So, it's clear Republicans are stealing away from reform and leaving Democrats holding the bag. Recent NAEP scores give them the perfect opportunity to make their case.