If American public schools are ever going to improve, education officials need to be honest about where students are succeeding and where they aren’t. That’s mainly unsolicited advice for Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra, who found mostly joy and silver linings in the newest scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The truth is much more complicated, and much darker, than Ybarra’s Oct. 30 two-page news release suggests.
Ybarra focused exclusively on Idaho’s results compared to the rest of the nation. She’s right that Idaho’s overall comparative performance compared to other states is laudable, given how the Left and its allies in the media have consistently tried to paint Idaho’s education system as a national bottom-feeder when it isn’t.
“Once again, our students debunked the myth that Idaho education lags near the bottom of state rankings,” Ybarra said in her news release. “This is the only assessment that measures what U.S. students know and can do in every state, and Idaho students performed better than the national average in all four tested cohorts.” Indeed, Idaho managed to generate better scores than states that have state-run preschools and full-day kindergartens.
However, Idaho’s continued performance against other states is a factoid worthy of light celebratory hors d’oeuvres, not a grand buffet. America’s public schools are failing, so compared to the failures of other states, Idaho can best be described as the skinniest kid at fat camp.
Ybarra noted Idaho’s struggle helping special needs students, an area that confounds schools in other states. Beyond that, the department obscures, diminishes, or otherwise ignores painful facts.
NAEP, which is a project of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, breaks scores down into four categories: below basic, basic, proficient, and advanced. That’s more complicated than the scores let on, but one might think of “below basic” as failing; “basic” represents students with passing grades; proficient and advanced scores represent comprehension of challenging topics by top-performing students.
Here are just a few more important facts regarding Idaho’s most recent NAEP test scores:
Idaho’s aggregate reading scores for fourth- and eighth-grade students were pretty much the same as they were two years ago and not noticeably better than they were 17 years ago. As with other states, Idaho’s eighth-grade reading results dropped this year.
The percentage of Idaho tested students who scored as “proficient” in reading was 37 percent in 2019, making it the same as it was two years ago and just a bit better than 2002’s 32 percent proficient level.
Similarly, the percentage of students scoring at or above the “basic” level was 69 percent, about where it was two years ago and not statistically different from 2002’s 67 percent.
Hispanic students continue to struggle when compared to their white peers, with half of Idaho’s Latino students scoring below basic. Federal officials note that the achievement gap for Idaho Hispanic students remains where it was in 2002.
So almost 20 years have passed and hundreds of millions of dollars have been pumped into the public education machinery. Yet no amount of dollars, wishful thinking or gushingly news releases has moved the needle for most of Idaho’s public education system. It’s not just Idaho; the public education cartel demands increasing amounts of money without the expectation of results in Idaho or in the rest of the country. U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos correctly noted that the NAEP scores nationwide leave a lot of room for introspection.
DeVos said, “Every American family needs to open The Nation’s Report Card this year and think about what it means for their child and for our country’s future. The results are, frankly, devastating. This country is in a student achievement crisis, and over the past decade it has continued to worsen, especially for our most vulnerable students.”
That’s the kind of radical candor Ybarra would do well to emulate. Candy coating the truth about education results won’t improve schools or help their students. Worse, celebrating mediocrity will harm today’s students when they find their government education hasn’t prepared them to pursue higher education, enter the workforce, or compete on a world stage.
Written by Wayne Hoffman, president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation.