Campbell Brown’s Bizarre NAEP Response in the Washington Post
On May 23, 2016, former principal and Network for Public Education (NPE) executive director Carol Burris published this Washington Post article in response to former news anchor and education privatization proponent Campbell Brown’s May 16, 2016, statement, “Two out of three eighth graders in this country cannot read or do math at grade level. We are not preparing our kids for what the future holds.” This statement was part of a Slate interview in which Brown was offering advice to the next president.
In her Washington Post piece, Burris supports the assertion that one should not take the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) “proficient” rating to mean “at grade level”– which is what Brown does in her Slate statement.
The NAEP website clearly notes that NAEP achievement levels are still considered to be in “trial status” and “should continue to be interpreted and used with caution.”
What is more to the point is that comparison research exists in which NAEP achievement levels were examined in conjunction with international testing. As Burris reports:
[Former teacher and Harvard professor who is an expert on school reform and student achievement, Tom] Loveless, who has written extensively about NAEP, said the following in his email correspondence with me:
“The cut point on NAEP is much too high [to be considered grade level].
In a 2007 study, researcher Gary Phillips projected where scores on the TIMSS, a series of international math and science given to kids around the world, would land on the NAEP scale. He estimated that 27 percent of Singapore’s 8th graders would fail to meet the NAEP proficient cut score in math. At the time, Singapore was the highest scoring country in the world. Japan — not exactly a weak math country–would see only 57 percent meet proficiency; 43 percent would “fail.” You can read more about that study on pp. 10-13 of the 2007 Brookings Report authored by Loveless that you can find here.
The above certainly provides context for interpreting NAEP proficiency.
Let me add to it.
The NAEP website includes trends in NAEP results by achievement level. Since Brown focused on the eighth grade NAEP results, let’s look at the trends for NAEP eighth grade reading and math. (Click images to enlarge.)
In her statement to Slate, Brown has apparently used the NAEP eighth-grade reading and math proficiency and advanced percentages as the evidence (albeit erroneous when it comes to that grade-level interpretation) to support her assertion, “We are not preparing our kids for what the future holds.”
But before rushing to “not preparing our kids,” consider NAEP trends.
In 1992– now 24 years ago– the percentage of eighth-grade students scoring NAEP proficient or above was 29 percent.
Over 22 years, that percentage peaked at 36 percent (2013) and over 24 years, it dipped a percentage point (35 percent in 2015).
Brown is obviously trying to capitalize on a crisis narrative, which takes a hit if one considers that for the past quarter century, only between 29 and 36 percent of America’s eighth-grade NAEP participants have ever scored proficient or higher. Ever. Thus, roughly two-thirds (or more) of eighth grade students not scoring NAEP proficient in reading is not evidence of American public education decline; it is just the reality of NAEP since the first assessment year, 1992.
The percentage of eighth-grade students scoring proficient or higher on the NAEP math lends even less credence to 2015 public education decline narrative. In the first year of the NAEP math assessment, 1990, only 15 percent of eighth graders scored proficient or higher on NAEP math. Twenty-three years later, in 2013, that percentage peaked at 36 percent. Twenty-five years later, in 2015, it dipped slightly, to 33 percent.
But there is some interesting correspondence between dips in percentage proficient or above and ed reform trends.
For example, for the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) years (2003-2015), the percentage of students achieving NAEP proficient or higher in math did not move much– from 28 percent in 2003 to the maximum of 36 percent in 2013.
In addition, during the NCLB years 2002-2011, eighth grade reading percentages also dipped.
And five years after the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) officially emerged (2010), both NAEP reading and math dipped slightly.
But none of this Brown is considering, just as she is not catching on to the fact that one simply cannot equate the NAEP achievement level, “proficient,” with being “at grade level.”
Here is Brown’s response to Burris’ Washington Post article, in which she misses the entire point and certainly betrays no intention of investigating the accuracy of possible future statements regarding proper interpretation of standardized testing results:
The histrionic reaction to the distinction between “grade level” and “grade level proficiency” begs the question: is this all you’ve got? You’ve lost the debate on charter schools. You’ve lost the debate on special protections you want for abusive teachers. You’ve lost the debate on tenure. Again, this reaction screams desperation. If I were trying to be completely and utterly precise then I would have specified “grade-level proficiency”, instead of “grade level” in the context of NAEP scores. But any reasonable person or parent can rightly assume that if their child is not reading at grade level, then their child is not proficient. Any reasonable person or parent knows exactly what I meant in that statement. That the people who disagree with my characterization would react by attacking me personally with sexist insults speaks volumes. Those feigning outrage over the difference between “grade level” and “grade level proficiency” are the people who profit off the system’s failure and feel compelled to defend it at all costs. Sadly, in the age of Donald Trump and Diane Ravitch, this is what constitutes discourse.
Not the best way for Brown to represent herself or her corporate reform agenda in a venue as well read as the Washington Post.
Based upon Brown’s bizarre response, I think we might reasonably expect her to continue to willfully misinterpret NAEP proficiency. She doesn’t know what she doesn’t know, and she doesn’t care.
But readers can take a lesson: Don’t be like Brown.
Remember that NAEP “proficient” and “at grade level” are not to be used interchangeably, nor are NAEP “proficient” and “grade level proficiency.” One should not even imply that students must achieve NAEP proficient in math or reading in order to be considered at grade level in math or reading.
Coming June 24, 2016, from TC Press: