Education Opinion

Is the Term “Lame Duck” Offensive?

By skoolboy — October 28, 2008 3 min read
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Maybe to a duck. The term originated in the world of finance, accompanying bulls and bears, and gravitated from referring to businessmen who couldn’t pay their debts to describing politicians who lose political power in anticipation of their scheduled loss of office. It’s hard not to view President George W. Bush and the men and women who surround him as lame ducks. But lame duck status generally doesn’t serve as a muzzle.

On Friday, White House Domestic Policy Director Karl Zinsmeister published a letter to the Editor of the New York Times responding to Sam Dillon’s front-page article entitled “Under ‘No Child” Law, Even Solid Schools Falter.” Zinsmeister argued that the testing and accountability at the heart of NCLB accounted for demonstrable educational progress in the U.S. “Over the last five years, 9-year-olds in the United States have made more progress in reading than in the previous three decades combined,” he wrote. “Achievement gaps between white and black students in reading and math are now the narrowest they have ever been. That’s the reality behind your June 24 New York Times on the Web headline ‘Reading and Math Scores Rise Sharply Across N.Y.’”


Longitudinal data on 9-year-olds are not a good indicator of recent changes in achievement in the U.S. The long-term trend data that NAEP collects has sampled 9-, 13 and 17-year-olds since the early 1970’s, and the most recent data were collected in the spring of 2008—and are not scheduled to be released until next year. So either Zinsmeister is discussing old data from 2004, or he’s drawing on data that have not yet been released and subject to public scrutiny. The main NAEP assessment has sampled 4th-, 8th- and 12th-graders since about 1990. We’ve got more recent data from the main NAEP available to judge trends over time than from the long-term trend NAEP. Moreover, the main NAEP is a more accurate measure of how students are performing in relation to current curriculum frameworks, as the content in the long-term trend NAEP hasn’t changed since its inception, whereas the main NAEP periodically revises the content covered to correspond to new curricular frameworks defined by the National Assessment Governing Board.

Data from the main NAEP do not show substantial gains associated with the implementation of NCLB. In the main NAEP, at the fourth-grade level, reading scores rose an average of two points from 2002 to 2007, the same gain as observed from 1992 to 2002. (Beginning in 1998, NAEP allowed testing accommodations.) At the eighth-grade level, reading scores fell an average of one point from 2002 to 2007, whereas they rose four points from 1992 to 2002. This is progress? In math, fourth-grade scores rose five points from 2003 to 2007, which is encouraging, and continues a long-term trend that began much earlier, as the average gain from 1990 to 2000 was 13 points. (There also was a gain of 9 points between 2000 and 2003.) The math story is much the same at the eighth-grade level. Scores rose an average of three points between 2003 and 2007, continuing a trend that began in 1990. Average 8th-grade math scores increased by 10 points between 1990 and 2000, and five points between 2000 and 2003.

As for New York scores? Sure, scores on the state-administered assessments rose substantially this past year, but on NAEP, 4th- and 8th-grade reading scores were essentially flat from 2003 to 2007, as were 8th-grade math scores. 4th-grade math scores did increase significantly from 2003 to 2007, by an average of 7 points. eduwonkette has written extensively about the reasons why high-stakes accountability test data may be inflated relative to tests with no stakes, such as NAEP, and why this might lead to distortions in how much the black-white achievement gap has declined over time.

It’s hard to isolate the impact of NCLB on NAEP scores, and there may be other student outcomes that at least suggest the possibility that NCLB has had some beneficial effects. But hanging the argument for the reauthorization of NCLB on rising NAEP scores and New York State test scores is downright foolish.

Mr. Zinsmeister, your analysis is lame. And now I’m going to duck.

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