New test scores suggest little academic progress for Philly, region

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(Photo via ShutterStock)

(Photo via ShutterStock)

Recent results from the standardized test known as the “nation’s report card” contained mostly uninspiring news about the progress of America’s school children, and the story in the Delaware Valley was much the same.

Reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress or NAEP largely fell or remained flat in Delaware and Pennsylvania. New Jersey, however, saw some notable increases.

Average scores in Philadelphia — one of 20 cities receiving its own, breakaway results — fell almost across the board, contradicting other testing data that seemed to indicate progress. The region’s largest city did, however, see an uptick in the percentage of students scoring at a proficient level, further muddling the narrative about Philadelphia’s trajectory.

In the modern medley of standardized assessments, NAEP is among the longest running and most closely scrutinized — especially at the national level. The test is taken every two years by a sample of fourth- and eighth-graders, unlike state tests, which are taken by every student in a wider range of grades.

State tests tend to draw the most attention locally, in part because they’re broken down by district and school. NAEP scores aren’t as precise. But they do permit for national and cross-state comparisons that aren’t possible with state-specific tests.

Many experts characterized the 2017 NAEP scores, released Tuesday, as disappointing. Average marks budged little from 2015, and gaps between the highest and lowest achievers appeared to widen.

It’s hard to know why yet. Some blame the lingering effects of the Great Recession while others criticized the direction of education policy.

Below we break down the trends in each state and city using two lenses: mean test score and percentage of students scoring at a proficient level or above.

Delaware

Delaware students continue to struggle on the tests. Scores and proficiency fell marginally in all but eighth-grade reading, and Delaware ranked between 28th and 35th nationally in the four categories measured.

For example, barely one in three Delaware fourth-graders – 36 percent – were proficient in math and reading. The decrease since 2015 was 1 percent in both subjects.

Among Delaware eighth-graders in 2017, 33 percent were up to state standards in reading – a 2 percent increase. Math proficiency fell from 30 to 28 percent over the two-year span.

Delaware’s scores continue a decline that began in 2015, They put Delaware about where it was in 2009, the year former-Gov. Jack Markell took office, launched ambitious educational reforms, and secured more than $119 million in “Race to the Top” funding.

The scores also fall far short of the Markell administration goals set in 2009, when education leaders seeking the federal funding said 60 percent of fourth-graders would reach proficiency in math and that 55 percent of Delaware students would attain proficiency in each of the other three tested categories.

The grant expired in 2015 and Markell was succeeded in January 2017 after two terms as governor by fellow Democrat John Carney.

Grade/Subject

2015 score

2017 score

Change

4th Grade — Math 239 236 -3
4th Grade — Reading 224 221 -3
8th Grade — Math 280 278 -2
8th Grade — Reading 263 263 None

 

Grade/Subject

2015 (% proficient)

2017 (% proficient)

Change

4th Grade — Math 37% 36% -1%
4th Grade — Reading 37% 36% -1%
8th Grade — Math 30% 28% -2%
8th Grade — Reading 31% 33% +2%

Delaware Department of Education officials would not agree to an interview with WHYY about the test results, but spokeswoman Alison May said in a written statement that the “scores confirm there is still much work to be done to ensure we’re closing achievement gaps and preparing our young people for success in college, careers and life.”

May’s statement added that, like most states, Delaware’s results didn’t change significantly, and that the state “remains committed to ensuring that all of our students receive a high-quality, equitable education.”

But Atnreakn Alleyne, executive director of the Delaware Campaign for Achievement Now, said the continued decline and stagnation illustrate what he calls a lack of urgency from state and district education leaders to improve outcomes for children.

“The overall picture for me is one that is not good,’’ Alleyne said.

He initially moved to Delaware in 2012 to take a job as a state education administrator because Delaware was aiming to be “globally competitive and world class and trying to close the achievement gap’’ between low-income children and those of means, he said.

Alleyne, whose group is especially interested in boosting the performance of students of color, said he senses the commitment has faded.

“My concern is that, over the last few years, there’s this kind of relaxing of standards and kind of conceding that certain kids are going to have massive gaps in their level of proficiency in math and reading and other subjects,’’ he said. “There’s not that energy around calling out the problems in the state.”

New Jersey

Scores and proficiency generally improved in traditionally high-performing New Jersey, except for eighth-grade math, where they fell.

New Jersey ranked from second through fourth among the 50 U.S. states in all four categories.

Grade/Subject

2015 score

2017 score

Change

4th Grade — Math 245 248 +3
4th Grade — Reading 229 233 +3
8th Grade — Math 293 292 -1
8th Grade — Reading 271 275 +4

 

Grade/Subject

2015 (% proficient)

2017 (% proficient)

Change

4th Grade — Math 47% 50% +3%
4th Grade — Reading 43% 49% +6%
8th Grade — Math 46% 44% -2%
8th Grade — Reading 41% 47% +6%

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania remained a relatively strong performer among all states, but showed few signs of improvement.

The state’s students ranked between 10th and 15th in the four tested categories. Average scores barely budged, and the percentage of students testing as proficient or above was similarly stable.

Grade/Subject

2015 score

2017 score

Change

4th Grade — Math 243 242 -1
4th Grade — Reading 227 225 -2
8th Grade — Math 284 286 -2
8th Grade — Reading 269 270 +1

 

Grade/Subject

2015 (% proficient)

2017 (% proficient)

Change

4th Grade — Math 45% 44% -1%
4th Grade — Reading 41% 40% -1%
8th Grade — Math 36% 38% +2%
8th Grade — Reading 39% 40% +1%

Philadelphia

Philadelphia has touted gains recently on state tests, particularly in early literacy. The NAEP results, however, paint a cloudier picture.

Average scores fell in every subject area except for eighth-grade reading, where they held steady.

Grade/Subject

2015 score

2017 score

Change

4th Grade — Math 217 215 -3
4th Grade — Reading 201 197 -4
8th Grade — Math 267 260 -7
8th Grade — Reading 248 248 None

Philadelphia fared better when scores were viewed through the lens of proficiency as opposed to overall averages.

Grade/Subject

2015 (% proficient)

2017 (% proficient)

Change

4th Grade — Math 15% 16% +1%
4th Grade — Reading 14% 17% +3%
8th Grade — Math 20% 16% -4%
8th Grade — Reading 16% 20% +4%

It’s hard to draw solid conclusions from these results, said researcher Ruth Curran Neild, director of the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium.

None of the changes detected in the new NAEP scores seem especially telling, she said, especially when considering that NAEP measures just a sample of students.

“The differences are not statistically significant,” said Neild. “And so the way we should interpret that is that there really was no change for Philadelphia.”

But running in place isn’t good enough for Philadelphia students, said Mark Gleason, executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, an education reform philanthropy that favors expanded school choice.

“I don’t see a lot here to be excited about,” said Gleason, who pointed to large and persistent achievement gaps in Philadelphia between white and black students and white and Hispanic students.

“Despite a lot of well-intentioned effort and spending, we still have a persistent equity gap when it comes to academic achievement and opportunity,” he said.

Donna Cooper, who heads Public Citizens for Children and Youth, was similarly unimpressed with the 2017 returns.

“Overall I think the results are pretty depressing,” she said. “We continue to make such little gain nationally, statewide and in Philadelphia.”

Cooper believes school strategies and funding levels haven’t adapted to the reality that in today’s economy nearly all students need to be academically proficient. She thinks the education system still operates from a baseline established in past generations, when some students could get good work without mastering core subjects. As a result, she said, today’s schools  produce students who aren’t intellectually prepared.

“We continue to live in denial that if we keep doing the same things we’re going to get different results,” she said.

School district officials said Wednesday they were still reviewing the results and unable to offer an on-the-record interview about the NAEP scores.

“Across our Philadelphia public schools we continue to build up our educational supports after years of statewide budget cuts,” said spokesman Lee Whack in a written statement. “In recent years we have made large investments for pre-K to third-grade students in order to improve early literacy and math competency. We hope to see the results of these investments as those students continue their education in our district.”

Officials also noted students used tablet technology when taking NAEP for the first time in 2017, potentially complicating the results. They also re-emphasized that NAEP tests only a sample of students.

Philadelphia’s scores only include students in its traditional public schools, omitting those in charter and private schools.

How each state stacks up nationally

Among states in the Delaware Valley, a clear academic hierarchy remains — at least according to NAEP. New Jersey ranks among the highest-scoring states, Pennsylvania above average, and Delaware below average.

Here are the state ranks in each of the tested categories.

4th Grade Math

NJ — fourth
PA — 14th
DE — 35th

4th Grade Reading

NJ — second
PA — 13th
DE — 28th

8th Grade Math

NJ — fourth
PA — 15th
DE — 35th

8th Grade Reading

NJ — second
PA — 10th
DE — 33rd

NAEP scores, however, don’t account for demographics or socioecnomics. Researchers at the Urban Institute created a tool that attempts to rank states on NAEP after controlling for the racial makeup of each state, the number of special education students, the percentage of students in poverty, and the number of English language learners.

After making those adjustments, Pennsylvania lost some luster, Delaware’s standing improved, and New Jersey remained strong.

Here’s how states in the region graded out.

4th Grade Math

NJ — fifth
PA — 19th
DE — 29th

4th Grade Reading

NJ — third
DE — 17th
PA — 18th

8th Grade Math

NJ — third
PA — 12th
DE — 23rd

8th Grade Reading

NJ — second
PA — 10th
DE — 22nd

 

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