Tag Archives: standardized test scores

NAEP? Nope: Why (Almost) Everyone Will Misread (Again) Data on Gaps

Let the data orgy begin!

NAEP data have been released and I anticipate almost as much time and money will be wasted on the data as has been wasted on administering the tests, scoring the tests, and creating the handy web link to all that data—notably the predictable link to gaps. [For the record, most of these data charts can be prepared without any child ever taking tests; just use the socioeconomic data on each child and extrapolate.]

Take a moment and scroll through the gray space between myriad groups in both math and reading.

There, enjoy it?

While you’re at it, look at the historical gaps between males and females in the SAT.

Males on average outscore females in reading and math (though females outscore males in writing, the one section of the SAT that doesn’t count for anything anywhere, hmmmm).

The problem, of course, is that standardized test data are simply metrics for social conditions that we pretend are measures of learning and teaching.

It is a particularly nasty game, but it seems few are going to stop playing any time soon. “Achievement gap”* has now ascended to the point of being classified as a subset of Tourette syndrome among politicians and education reformers.

The problems with persisting to lament achievement gaps and then address those gaps with new standards and more testing are that the solutions both primarily measure those gaps and contribute to them:

  • Standardized testing remains biased by class, race, and gender.
  • Standardized test scores remain mostly a reflection of any child’s home (from about 60% to as much as 86%).
  • School and classes students take are more often than not a reflection of the community and homes children are born into; thus, school/learning quality is determined by a child’s socioeconomic status, but those schools do not change that status.
  • If affluent children and impoverished children are provided equal learning opportunities (which they are not), the gap cannot close (go back and look at the handy NAEP charts on gaps, by the way).

The short point is something different has to be done in both the lives and schools of children in poverty (as well as racial and language subgroups overrepresented in poverty) if those data-point gaps are ever going to be reduced.

David Berliner (2013) is illustrative of what those differences should entail, using PISA data often instrumental in ranking educational quality of countries:

Let me look at inequality and schooling internationally: Do countries with greater income inequality generally do worse on achievement tests than countries where income inequality and poverty is lower? The answer is yes (Condron, 2011). Larger income disparities within a nation are associated with lower scores on international tests of achievement. For example, on the 2006 mathematics tests of the Program on International Student Achievement, with a mean score near 500, Finland scored above all other nations (548), and substantially beat the United States of America (474). But Finland is a country with low inequality and a very low childhood poverty rate. But suppose that Finland had the same rate of childhood poverty as the United States of America, and the United States of America had the same rate of childhood poverty as Finland. What might the scores of these two nations be like then? If one statistically adjusted each nation’s scores using the poverty rate of the other, then Finland’s score is predicted to be 487, a long way from the top position it had attained. The score for the United States of America would have been 509, quite a bit better than it actually did. Clearly, inequality within a nation matters. If large numbers of youth in a nation are poor, then achievement test scores are likely to be lower. If there were a reduction in the poverty rate of a nations’ youth, achievement scores are likely to go up….

To those who say that poverty will always exist, it is important to remember that many Northern European countries such as Norway and Finland have virtually wiped out childhood poverty. (pp. 205, 208)

Thus, if we are bound and determined to persist in our fetish for test scores and remain committed to raising test scores (instead of actually alleviating inequity or providing all children with wonderful and rich school days that would end in learning and happiness), guess what?

We need to do something different than what we have been doing for thirty-plus years!

First, end the standards-testing rat race.

Second, end childhood poverty.


David C. Berliner (2013) Inequality, Poverty, and the Socialization of America’s Youth for the Responsibilities of Citizenship, Theory Into Practice, 52:3, 203-209, DOI: 10.1080/00405841.2013.804314

* Please see my series on “achievement gaps”:

Achievement Gap Misnomer for Equity Gap, pt. 1

Achievement Gap Misnomer for Equity Gap, pt. 2


First Name and then Act

If we cannot even name the reality we claim we want to change, then we will never change that reality.


There are two points that I make in my scholarship and public writing that are certain to prompt reactions from both friends and foes that suggest I may have just run down someone’s grandmother with a bus:

Let me try once again to clarify both that these claims are true and necessary to name in order to change.

“Poverty is destiny” is a normative [1] fact of the United States. For most children, the social class they are born into predicts the trajectory of their lives, independent of their self-worth, effort, and all sorts of other factors we are more likely to associate with the individual child.

That this is a normative statement includes a concession that outliers exist (some people fall out of and rise above the social class of their births), but outliers do not discredit a normative statement just as we must caution against making an outlier status the rubric for normalized behavior. In other words, that African American men have scaled to the presidency and supreme court stands as outliers against the disproportionate number of AA men incarcerated in our country:

Michelle Alexander has embodied the need to name in order to change by confronting the normative facts of mass incarceration as well as the indisputable fact that mass incarceration is the New Jim Crow, thus racist.

And Sean Reardon has now offered a powerful case that “poverty and affluence are destiny”:

Here’s a fact that may not surprise you: the children of the rich perform better in school, on average, than children from middle-class or poor families. Students growing up in richer families have better grades and higher standardized test scores, on average, than poorer students; they also have higher rates of participation in extracurricular activities and school leadership positions, higher graduation rates and higher rates of college enrollment and completion….

In the 1980s, on an 800-point SAT-type test scale, the average difference in test scores between two such children would have been about 90 points; today it is 125 points. This is almost twice as large as the 70-point test score gap between white and black children. Family income is now a better predictor of children’s success in school than race….

We are still talking about this despite decades of clucking about the crisis in American education and wave after wave of school reform.Whatever we’ve been doing in our schools, it hasn’t reduced educational inequality between children from upper- and lower-income families….

The income gap in academic achievement is not growing because the test scores of poor students are dropping or because our schools are in decline….

It may seem counterintuitive, but schools don’t seem to produce much of the disparity in test scores between high- and low-income students. We know this because children from rich and poor families score very differently on school readiness tests when they enter kindergarten, and this gap grows by less than 10 percent between kindergarten and high school. There is some evidence that achievement gaps between high- and low-income students actually narrow during the nine-month school year, but they widen again in the summer months….

The more we do to ensure that all children have similar cognitively stimulating early childhood experiences, the less we will have to worry about failing schools. This in turn will enable us to let our schools focus on teaching the skills — how to solve complex problems, how to think critically and how to collaborate — essential to a growing economy and a lively democracy.

Alexander and Reardon are naming normative facts—ones that many all along the ideological spectrum not only refuse to do themselves, but rush to silence others who do name in order to change.

If the patterns of mass incarceration and “no excuses”/”zero tolerance” schools and policies even impacted privileged white males proportionately in the U.S., the outcry would be deafening.

The current and historical racially disproportionate and negative patterns of the U.S. penal and judicial systems and the rise of highly segregated “no excuses” charter schools and “zero tolerance” urban public schools must be named and then we must act t change that which is racist, that which is classist, that which is sexist.

Refusing to name, refusing to act guarantees poverty will remain destiny and the current education reform movement will continue to mirror the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration.

If you are uncertain about the messages our culture sends about race, view the video below:

This Is The Worst Thing I Have Ever Heard A Child Say

[1] “Normative” is being expressed as “typical,” that which can fairly be called “normal” in the sense of mode and/or more than half of a population exists in that condition.