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Students Aren't Learning Math. Can NCLB Help?

New statistics show that U.S. students are struggling to learn basic math. The 2009 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in math, a test given every two years to fourth- and eighth-graders nationwide, were released this week. Although average overall scores have doubled since the NAEP was introduced in 1990, results have completely flat-lined among fourth-graders, and the achievement gap between white and black students isn't narrowing.

 The New York Times notes that such trends could be linked to the enactment of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2002:

They [the test results] show that scores grew faster during the seven years before the federal law’s enactment. During those years, average fourth-grade math scores grew by 11 points, to 235 in 2003 from 224 in 1996, and eighth-grade scores grew by eight points, to 278 in 2003 from 270 in 1996. In the six years since the law took effect, fourth-grade scores have risen by five points, to 240 from 235. Eighth-grade scores have risen by an equal amount, to 283 from 278. (emphasis added)

This would seem a blow to supporters of NCLB, which requires that schools demonstrate regular progress by reporting students’ results on statewide standardized tests. Pedro Noguera, professor of teaching and learning at NYU, tells me that NCLB has "narrowed the quality of teaching" and diminished the scope of curricula standards to only those areas that will help students succeed on the state tests, which are often crafted--as in, dumbed down--to make sure students will succeed at rates Washington will approve of. "All of the indicators are showing that this strategy isn't working," Noguera says. "Far too many kids are bored in schools, doing passive learning and test prep." The result? Among others, dwindling NAEP scores, because students aren’t equipped to do well on national exams.

But other experts point out that NAEP math scores rose more substantially in the pre-NCLB era because teachers were introducing new methods of math instruction and because charter schools, which provided a competitive incentive to improve curricula, were coming onto the education scene. Now, for NAEP scores to jump higher, more reform is needed. "You put a reform in place, and you get some gains, and you squeeze all the juice out of that reform," says Amy Wilkins of Education Trust. "You get to a plateau, then you need to do the next thing to get a little higher."

What is that "next thing"? With NCLB up for reauthorization soon, it's a critical question.

First, Congress shouldn’t let states set their own standards for student achievement anymore. "School boards and the unions lobbied heavily in the debate over NCLB that states and communities be allowed to make their own standards," explains Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, "so NCLB lost some teeth." The revised NCLB should demand that states implement common achievement standards--whether they are goals tied to the NAEP or those eventually proposed by the Common Core Standards Project, which numerous state officials committed to earlier this year. Allen proposes that the government "not give a penny to states that aren't aligned" with the national standards.

 And schools need better teachers, too. "You can have really high standards, but they become like museum pieces and people just admire them, unless you have the teaching force to get people up to standards," Wilkins says. For starters, teachers need to be better-trained in their subject areas. Charles Barone, director of federal policy at Democrats for Education Reform, points out that eight-graders whose teachers majored in mathematics scored an average 289 out of 500 on the most recent NAEP, while those whose teachers didn't have a math degree scored 279. "That's almost ten years of growth on the NAEP," Barone says of the ten-point difference. What's more, the most inexperienced and poorly trained teachers need to stop being shoved into classrooms with the nation's poorest minority students, and unions need to stop protecting ineffective teachers with archaic seniority and tenure policies (which I've written about on this site before). The Department of Education is already incentivizing these sorts of improvements with its $4.35-billion Race to the Top Fund--for which states may qualify only if they demonstrate a commitment to boosting teacher quality--and it should incorporate similar rules into the revised NCLB. 

 So, while the sluggish NAEP scores are “a reason to sit up and take notice,” in the words of Andrew Smarick, a visiting fellow at the Fordham Institute in Washington, “[they are] not a reason to press the panic button yet.” Indeed, the NAEP scores are indicators of the direction the NCLB reauthorization needs to take--and stark reminders of how quickly policymakers need to get moving.