But I thought our schools are failing


by David Safier

One of the foundation myths of the conservative “education reform” movement is, our schools are failing. That’s why we need more charter schools and vouchers for private schools: to get our kids out of those failing “government schools.”

This just in: Today’s students are achieving at a higher level than students in the 1970s, and the biggest gains have been made by African American and Hispanic students. Actually, this isn’t news, it’s been clear for some time, but the “ed reformers” choose to ignore it, and the gullible media too often swallows the “failing schools” myth whole.

The Star has an AP story comparing NAEP test scores from the 1970s when the tests began to today’s scores. To the extent it makes sense to rely on any standardized tests, NAEP is the one to rely on. It hasn’t changed much in its four decade life, and you can’t teach to the test, so test prep doesn’t distort the scores.

Students aged 9, 13 and 17 take the test. From 1973 to the present, reading scores for 9 year olds went up 13 points; for 13 year olds, scores went up 8 points. In math, 9 year olds went up 25 points and 13 year olds went up 19 points. There was no significant change for 17 year olds, an interesting stat I’ll talk about later in the post.

Here’s a fascinating bit of data. All the increase in scores happened from 1972 to 2008. The scores have basically flatlined since 2008, which is when the push for standardized testing and data, data, data reached its peak. Instead of all that testing bearing fruit, it looks like it’s put a damper, at least temporarily, on the growth in scores. Maybe it’s all the time stolen from actual instruction to “teach to the test” — the state high stake tests, not the NAEP — not to mention the class time spent actually taking the damn things.

Why haven’t the NAEP scores for 17 year olds gone up like they have for the 9 and 13 year olds? One possible answer is, more people are staying in school now than in 1972, so 17 year olds who otherwise would have dropped out are taking the test and lowering the average. But there’s another bit of information that confuses the issue. Black and Hispanic 17 year olds made big gains in both reading and math — between 17 and 30 points. You would think the lowered dropout rate would depress the scores of those two groups as well, but the opposite happened. It looks like our schools have succeeded in raising the reading and math scores of Black and Hispanic students dramatically over the past 40 years. That’s a significant accomplishment.

I always have to add a coda to posts like this so I don’t sound like a cock-eyed education optimist. Our schools aren’t what they should be. We can and should do better. But when we put them on a comparative scale with schools in the 1970s, it looks like our schools are actually outperforming those of 40 years ago. (And please, please don’t tell me, “Yeah, but charters and private schools are doing even better.” It just ain’t so.)


  1. Hundreds of great positive things occur everyday in public schools across Arizona. Major accomplishments are all around you. You can guarantee anything with “reform” in the title from the right wing is NOT about education of our children. So much education “policy” is not about education.

  2. And if more teachers would take their kids out for daily physical activity breaks if there is no PE, you would see scores go even higher!!