Results from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) came out today, and they tell a somewhat depressing story. The math scores of U.S. fourth and eighth graders rocketed upwards from at least 1990 until about 2005, when they began to level off. Why are our students losing steam? Perhaps the big reforms states launched more than 20 years ago have delivered all the results they can. The message here? It's time for another shock to the system.
Here's what the trend in 4th grade math scores looks like (and 8th grade is pretty similar):
In the early '90s, most states started adopting standards for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. Those standards lent coherence to what schools taught and helped teachers spot areas where students were falling short of the mark. For the next decade and a half, students made substantial gains.
Yet the standards movement was far from perfect. Many states' standards weren't all that great. All too often, states set a low bar for passing the tests that measured how well students learned what was on the standards. Many teachers didn't get the support they needed to teach to those standards. The gains are petering out.
Now we might get another bite at the apple. Forty-five states have adopted Common Core State Standards, which are more challenging and coherent that most states' previous standards. The lion's share of those states are developing common tests to measure how well students master those standards, and they will probably come together to set a high bar for passing those tests. Now, states also have an opportunity to give teachers the support and training they need to help students clear that high bar. If all those stars align--and there are no guarantees that they will--we might see more big gains.
This is all a bit speculative, of course, but the anemic growth of the last five or so years should make it clear that we're due for another big reform. (See this 2012 paper from the Fordham Foundation, which made that argument in pretty convincing terms.) Time will tell whether Common Core standards will deliver on its promise, but we're optimistic.
We often hear that the United States lags behind other nations in its students math performance. That's very true, but the picture gets a bit more complicated when you look at what's happening in different states. The map below, from the Huffington Post, drives home that important point.
On average, students in Massachusetts perform at the level of Japanese students. Not too shabby! Students in Alabama? They're on par with students in Armenia.
Hat tip: Alexander Russo.