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Campbell Brown’s Bizarre NAEP Response in the Washington Post

May 23, 2016

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 Slate interview in which Brown was offering advice to the next president.

campbell brown slate Campbell Brown, in her Slate interview

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.)

Trend in eighth-grade NAEP reading achievement-level results:

NAEP reading gr 8

Trend in eighth-grade NAEP mathematics achievement-level results:

NAEP math gr 8

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.

minion thumbs up


Coming June 24, 2016, from TC Press:

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Stay tuned.



Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of the ed reform whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education.

She also has a second book, Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

  1. 2old2tch permalink

    What an odd response on Campbell’s part. Does she intend to look not very bright?

  2. Excellent post. Campbell Brown has a remarkable similarity to Helen Lovejoy from “The Simpsons”
    who hysterically -and opportunistically -proclaims “Won’t someone please think of the chldren?”

  3. Keep the arts for kids permalink

    Brown’s campaign continues to be built on FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt), the primary tool of those determined to undermine the country’s public schools. Unfortunately, in today’s political environment, it is proving effective.

  4. “Brown is obviously trying to capitalize on a crisis narrative … But readers can take a lesson: Don’t be like Brown.”

    Everything is a failure according to Common Core zealots. Students, teachers, parents, schools … you name it, they’re all failures. Every last one of them.

    This is their tiresome ploy. Failure is all around … and we’re all too, too oblivious to see all of this with our very own eyes.

    What’s so stunning to me is the fact that so many of us are still here … and that our miserable, failing nation is the most desired destination on the planet. All of which begs certain questions that are never, ever addressed by the Common Core corps.

    Here’s the real mystery. How has America maintained its premier economic circumstances when we are populated by such uneducated dolts?

    How is it that our military is the most technologically advanced … and what explains the fact that we produce enough food-stuffs to feed ourselves … and vast portions of the world? I’m stumped why we’re the first to offer emergency services when disaster strikes around the globe … and folks seem numb to the USA insignia on replacement equipment, food, and supplies.

    That’s a lot of very dumb folks doing some miraculous things.

    Now, to our schools. Something’s wrong, alright. Our schools don’t behave according to the Common Core observations. Our public school faculties are some of the most credentialed on the planet.These public schools lay the foundation that has made America the most recognized Nobel prize producing nation of all-time. No country has ever been so inventive as America. None. We lead in medical inventions and innovations … the same for computer technologies … as well as for mechanical innovations of all sorts. Man, those dumb Americans are the luckiest folks the world’s ever seen!

    These failing public schools have produced world-renown playwrights, artists, actors, musicians, vocalists, and authors of all sorts. These dreadful public schools have given rise to admired engineers and architects and urban planners. They’ve yielded ship designers and astronauts … and the vessels they use to speed around space. We accidentally put men on the moon and recently bumped into Pluto. Ooops! Hope that mistake doesn’t happen again! … some folks will be very embarrassed.

    And we have dozens of nations world-wide that have modeled themselves after our political foundations. We’d better call them with the bad news that we’re not worth emulating. We’re failures.

    It’s ironic that even these asinine Common Core diehards can’t give credit to the very educational training that allowed their fertile minds to crank out such a creative and embellishing litany of lies. What ungrateful failures!

    Denis Ian

  5. Jennifer permalink

    This is not the first time that NAEP labels have been used to fool people, and it won’t be the last. Why doesn’t the NAEP board change it to something more honest? It seems like false advertising the way they use the “proficient” label. Maybe NAEP needs to be targeted and pressured by the public to change their misleading and confusing labels?

  6. Campbell Brown brings up two fair points:

    1) When Diane Ravitch called her “telegenic,” this was a rhetorical move to portray her as just-a-pretty-face. A man would not be labeled in this way.

    2) If she used the term “grade level proficient,” she would not need to retract her claim.

    Some of her claims are ridiculous.

    “You’ve lost the debate on charter schools.” Has she reviewed her own students’ lack of success on HS entrance exams?

    “You’ve lost the debate on special protections you want for abusive teachers.” Nobody is in favor of protecting abusers.

    “You’ve lost the debate on tenure.” California’s tenure track is flawed, but having due process protections is still safe in New York.

    I disagree vehemently with Brown.

    I agree that she has a couple of valid points.

  7. Jack permalink

    Campbell and her ilks always have to sell that line … failure, failure… everywhere! She needs to. After all, why reform something that’s already working? (In most places, that is … the schools of the upper and middle classes… though not in the woefully and deliberately underfunded schools serving the working/poorer classes.)

    Campbell has about as much applied knowledge and expertise in education as your average washroom attendant.

    As someone else has stated, she makes demonstrably false pronouncements with the same certainty as someone saying “sugar is sweet” or “water is wet.”

    — “You’ve lost the debate on charter schools.”

    Uhh… no. Despite millions upon millions spent by the pro-charter and anti-charter propaganda — WAITING FOR SUPERMAN, WON’T BACK DOWN, elections, ballot initiatives — the public’s opinion of charters is negative, and especially negative when asked whether all schools should be turned over the private sector control via charter school expansion.

    — “You’ve lost the debate on special protections you want for abusive teachers.”

    No, again … as there was no debate, as a debate requires two sides that disagree on something. No one in the various groups that oppose Brown and her privatization allies — opponents such as teacher groups, parent groups, community groups — “wants” … “special protections … for abusive teachers.” Teachers, teachers unions, and she agree that sexual predators should be removed forthwith, but Campbell doesn’t let that stop her from claiming otherwise.

    Her claims that, thanks to evil unions, sexual predators were running rampant in public schools was just sensationlist, union-busting, fear-mongering by Campbell. Like Joe McCarthy waving a piece of paper, “I have list of 220 Communists working in the State Department,” that he never let anyone see, Campbell’s “list” turned out to be just as phony.

    — “You’ve lost the debate on tenure.”

    No again. Despite tens of millions dumped in by school privatizers out to destroy the teaching profession and eliminate due process that should be afforded a professional, they lost and lost big a couple months ago in he California courts.

    • I am so very tired of that mantra, and am overwhelmed by what it must be doing to a whole generation of children: Failure, failure…everywhere.

  8. Ken Watanabe permalink

    Question: What’s her husband’s name? Charlie Brown!?

  9. Ken Watanabe permalink

    >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.”

    Right. Even a clueless, incapable Japan Ministry of Education would never set NEAP “proficient” level as grade-level benchmark. It’s same level of stupidity like adopting high-stakes English language proficiency test TOEFL to all high school students who don’t speak English at all. No doubt in my mind that hundreds of thousands of angry parents crash into their headquarters in Tokyo.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Mercedes Schneider Tries to Explain NAEP to Campbell Brown | Diane Ravitch's blog
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