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Opinion: NAEP, NCSL Reports Paint Dire Picture for K-12

With U.S. schools recording their largest-ever drop in math scores and struggling students falling farther behind, the nation's education leaders should be looking for new ways to raise student proficiency.

A student sitting at a desk writing with a pencil. The image cuts off just below their neck.
I recently wrote in October, “I hope that more classrooms, schools and districts move on the path to proficiency. It’s the right thing to do.” This month I want to share two reports that should motivate all educators and concerned citizens to help change school structures to a proficiency model as soon as possible.

In September, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) board released its report. Although widely reported, it seems it is already forgotten. On Oct. 24 the Wall Street Journal wrote:

“The nation’s schools recorded the largest drop in math scores ever this year, with fourth and eighth grade students in nearly every state showing significant declines, according to Education Department data released Monday.

“In the most sweeping analysis of test scores since the start of the pandemic, the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, also revealed a nationwide plunge in reading that wiped out three decades of gains.

“Pre-pandemic declines in academic achievement intensified nationwide, and many longstanding gaps in student achievement grew.”

This reliable report issued by NAEP is worth reading in full. The message is so important that it bears repeating: math scores dropped, reading scores plunged, “pre-pandemic declines in academic achievement intensified nationwide, and many longstanding gaps in student achievement grew.”

NAEP’s news release says, “Compared to 9-year-olds in winter 2020, the 9-year-olds who took the assessment in winter 2022 scored seven points lower in mathematics and five points lower in reading — the largest score decline in reading since the 1990s and the first-ever decline in mathematics.”

This is not just another report. This is a big deal! The National Assessment Governing Board is an independent, nonpartisan board whose members include governors, state legislators, local and state school officials, educators, business representatives, and members of the general public. Congress created the 26-member Governing Board in 1988 to set policy for the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The bottom line: The pandemic accelerated learning losses, and this is no longer business as usual. Something is not working.

On Dec. 7, Education Week’s headline read: State Ed. Systems Aren’t Equipped to Address Schools’ Big Challenges:

“State education systems need an overhaul and it’s incumbent on state legislators to make it happen, a group of 20 bipartisan state lawmakers and legislative staff concludes in a new report.

“The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) report, The Time is Now: Reimagining World-Class State Education Systems, outlines a dire situation for state education systems: widened academic achievement gaps between high- and low-achieving learners, teacher staffing challenges, and an unprepared workforce …

“‘These academic test scores, coupled with other measures of student well-being, serve as a warning that our system is failing a vast majority of students, which has significant implications for our future economy,’ the new report says.”

It is hard to summarize the report, and I suggest reading it all. Those two paragraphs make the same point I’ve been speaking and writing about — proficiency, mastery and competency and shifting to a learner-paced model. Education Week’s story goes on:

“The report also recommends that state education systems create personalized and proficiency-based learning pathways for students. The idea is to let students move through the education system at their own pace rather than at a pace determined by the amount of time spent in the classroom.

“For example, the report recommends that state education systems adopt competency-based assessment models, ensuring that students don’t move to the next step in the education system without first mastering the subjects they are working on.”

The report links to the not-for-profit NCEE’s (National Center on Education and the Economy) Blueprint for a High-Performing Education System. I was fascinated by one item in this report that addressed testing. It says assessments should be “purposeful.”

“(A)ssessments measure what students need to be able to do to succeed at the next stage of education or in work and life. The goal is not just to measure recall of facts and mastery of basic skills. They capture the ability of the student to analyze newly presented material, synthesize material from many sources to address complex, real-world problems, demonstrate deep understanding of the concepts underlying the discipline studied, apply what has been learned to new challenges and, in general, demonstrate a capacity for thoughtful, fluent, informed use of the material studied,” NCEE's report reads.

While the NAEP report is heartbreaking, and the NCSL report is challenging, they should motivate all of us to implement education programs and systems that are personalized and that focus on mastery of material before moving on. That should be the new bedrock of our schools, where learning is the constant and time is the variable. Personalized learning should be the new status quo.

As I have written many times, mastery/competency/proficiency-based education is working in many educational settings and it is working well. The latest of many books that address this issue is Michael Horn’s From Reopen to Reinvent: (Re)Creating School for Every Child. It is a timely and eye-opening call to action for the overthrow of an education system that is not working well for many of its students. It addresses the importance of focusing on mastery for each student, and the ideal use of technology to attain that result.

The good news is that Horn’s book provides tools and methods to make a successful transition, and at this page on his site are links to wonderful videos showing proficiency in action, and more! There are many other useful resources on this topic. For example, the folks at Modern Classrooms Project are willing to help at no to low cost! KnowledgeWorks and Aurora Institute are just two of many organizations that can help schools at any stage of the transition process. And of course, if schools want help moving away from letter grades, check out the Mastery Transcript Consortium. I keep mentioning these groups because I don’t want anyone to waste time reinventing the wheel!

Nelson Mandela said “Our children are the rock on which our future will be built, our greatest asset as a nation.” This is serious business and time is running out. Both reports make it clear that we can and we must do a much better job with and for all of our students. We can design better schools that serve all students. We know what these new schools look like and we know they work. The time to move to mastery/competency/proficiency-based education is now!
Mark Siegel is assistant head at Delphian School in Sheridan, Ore.