States Get Low Grades on Student Achievement in Think Tank Report

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Despite the attention focused on poor and minority students by the No Child Left Behind Act, most states are doing a poor job of narrowing achievement gaps, concludes a “report card” released today by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

The report by the Washington-based think tank gives states an average grade of D on student achievement, arguing that progress has been negligible since the 1983 release of A Nation at Risk, a landmark report warning of a “rising tide of mediocrity” in American public schools.

“Student achievement in the U.S. remains essentially flat even as the demands of a 21st century economy stiffen and the education systems of other lands outpace ours,” the report says. “The U.S. urgently needs to become a nation in which every child learns to his or her full potential between kindergarten and 12th grade.”

Each state received a student-achievement grade—based primarily on results from the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading, mathematics, and science— for African-Americans, Hispanics, and children from low-income families. Children from those groups on average trail on standardized tests compared with their white and Asian-American peers.

A quarter of the grade was also based on high-school-graduation rates for African-Americans, Hispanics, and children from low-income families, as well as statewide passing rates on Advanced Placement exams for students from those groups.

The report was originally released Oct. 25, but was withdrawn from the group’s Web site after errors in data were discovered. Still, the recalculations led to only minor changes.

Of the 50 states, most were given D’s, three received F’s, and six had insufficient data for the foundation to calculate a grade. In a press release, foundation President Chester E. Finn Jr. said the results dispute some of the rhetoric from state leaders about improving student performance.

“Many state officials have claimed credit for gains in student achievement,” he said. “But this study casts doubt on many such claims.”

However, some state officials questioned the report’s conclusions.

Gloria Dopf, the Nevada Department of Education’s deputy superintendent of instruction, research, and evaluative services, said she understands that researchers don’t have much choice but to use NAEP data when comparing states with one another. But the report ignores improvements in student performance on state tests, which are aligned with NAEP, she argued.

“We do have performance gaps, but we are systemically working on those gaps, unlike what the Fordham article indicated,” she said. “[The report] was very harsh and not really reflecting some of the strategies and reform initiatives in the state.”

Grading Reform

States also received an “education reform” grade, based on state efforts in the areas of curriculum content, standards-based reform, and school choice. In these areas, states don’t look so bad. The average score is C-minus, and three states—Arizona, New Mexico, and California—even received a B-minus.

In the profile on California, the state scores points from Fordham for leading the nation in the number of charter schools in operation, hiring alternatively certified teachers, and eliminating bilingual education.

“If the no-nonsense reforms currently in place retain their stature in the state’s education establishment, the state’s school system could, in a few years, become a source of pride instead of the punch line for a bad joke,” the report said.

Vermont, which the report called the “cellar-dweller,” was the only state to receive an F for education reform. The report cites the state’s opposition to charter schools and a high school exit exam.

“In this small state of less than 600,000 people, 97 percent of whom are white, the idea that schools must be ‘reformed’ does not go down well with folks,” the authors write.

The report, which the foundation plans to issue each year, concludes by saying that even though some people are looking to the federal government to improve achievement among poor and minority students, the responsibility ultimately rests with the states.

Vol. 26, Issue 11

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