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April 28, 2020 6 min read

NAEP Scores Plunge In History, Geography, Remain Flat in Civics

Eighth graders’ grasp of key topics in history have plummeted, national test scores released last week show—an alarming result at a time of deep political po-larization, economic uncertainty, and public upheaval in the United States.

Except for the very top-performing students, scores fell among nearly all 8th graders in history on the Na-tional Assessment of Educational Progress, since the last history administration, in 2014.

The 4-point decline overall erased fully half the over-all gains made in the subject since 1994, the first year the exam was given.

Scores fell in geography, too. The overall decline of 3 points since 2014 was largely the result of a down-turn in the performance of the lowest-performing students—those at the 25th percentile and below.

Only in civics did scores remain flat. Learning in that subject has historically proved difficult to budge: Since the test’s first administration, in 1998, scores in that assessment have increased by only 3 points.

National concern about the quality of young peo-ple’s civic and historical preparation and knowledge of global events has been steadily growing over the past two years, with some states introducing new course-work and testing requirements. But the coronavirus pandemic has upended K-12 education, and it is un-clear whether states will continue to pump the gas on those efforts.

On the other hand, the temporary suspension of the reading and math tests many blame for focusing schools too narrowly on those subjects provides an opportunity to seize the moment, noted Louise Dubé, the executive director of curriculum provider iCivics.

The history, civics, and geography exams were given in early 2018 to a national sample of nearly 43,000 8th graders. It is also the first time these subjects have been assessed using digital devices as well as traditional paper-and-pencil forms.

Switching to a new testing mode can depress scores, so NAEP officials used statistical methods to equate the digital results to prior years’ paper-and-pencil scores.

District Leaders Seek Leeway in Helping Seniors Graduate and Move on to College

Nearly every state has enacted changes to its graduation criteria or guidance as a result of the widespread school closures prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

“When you’re thinking about a 12th grader who has ... essentially completed 15/16ths of their high school career at this point, we wanted to be as flexible as possible,” said James Lane, Virginia’s state schools chief.

For the most part, districts will bear the brunt of decisions about which student gets credit for what partly completed class and how.

Take Arizona, which calls itself a local-control state. “We put out guidance to schools, but how that guidance plays out on the ground is really dependent on our local school districts,” said Morgan Dick, a spokeswoman for the Arizona education department. “One senior’s experience could look really different from school to school, district to district, all across our state.”

The sudden need for flexibility comes as many states were pushing for more rigorous “college- and career-ready” diploma requirements, which has accelerated the search for valid and creative ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge in more holistic ways.

In a survey of districts, Utah found that more than 8 in 10 reported that before the pandemic closures, they were already awarding students credit toward diplomas for electronic or correspondence coursework, as well as for college credit earned outside the high school. Half or more also allow students to “test out” of some coursework or take state-approved competency-based tests.

Still, said Jennifer Throndsen, Utah’s director of teaching and learning, states are trying to balance flexibility for graduation with college admissions and scholarship requirements. For example, Utah and New Hampshire are interested in letting districts change some course grades to pass/fail, but that could make students ineligible for athletic scholarships or university admissions.

Appeals Court Revives Suit On Right of Literacy Access

In a groundbreaking decision, a federal appeals court last week recognized a fundamental federal right to a basic minimum education and access to literacy.

The 2-1 decision by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals, in Cincinnati, revives a lawsuit brought on behalf of a group of Detroit schoolchildren over poor conditions in that city’s schools, which have been under varying degrees of state control in recent years.

“The recognition of a fundamental right is no small matter,” said the court in Gary B. v. Whitmer. “Where, as plaintiffs allege here, a group of children is relegated to a school system that does not provide even a plausible chance to attain literacy, we hold that the Constitution provides them with a remedy.”

The majority rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments based on the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause and on compulsory school attendance laws. But it recognized the rights to a basic minimum education and access to literacy as part of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of substantive due process.

Gary B. is part of a new wave of litigation asserting a federal right to education. In Rhode Island, a federal suit is pending based on civics and the right to participate in citizenship. And in Mississippi, a federal appeals court recently revived part of a suit asserting that Mississippi’s lack of a “uniform” education system violates the 1868 federal law readmitting the state to the Union after the Civil War.

The Detroit children’s schools are five of the lowest-performing in the state, and the suit asserts that conditions are so bad—due to the absence of qualified teachers, crumbling facilities, and insufficient materials—that the schools fail to provide access to literacy.

The appeals court said it was premature to define the exact contours of the right it was recognizing, though it would seem to include three basic components: facilities, teaching, and educational materials.

Thousands of Schools Failing To Protect Students’ Privacy

Thousands of K-12 schools nationwide are putting students’ personal data at risk by failing to adequately disclose to parents and students their right to opt out of legally permitted information sharing, concludes a recent report by the World Privacy Forum.

The nonprofit surveyed more than 5,000 K-12 schools as well as 102 postsecondary institutions. The primary focus of the study is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

FERPA permits students and parents to request that schools refrain from publicly disclosing any “directory information,” but schools don’t always make that opportunity clear to families, the report says. More than 60 percent of the schools surveyed don’t have a FERPA opt-out form that’s online and available to the public. Only slightly more than half of schools posted an annual FERPA notice online.

The report also identifies additional barriers to opting out. Parents of K-12 students have an average of one to two months per year to opt out; postsecondary schools typically allow opt-outs all year. And some opt-out forms contain language that subtly hints that parents shouldn’t take privacy steps, the report says.

The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the urgency of resolving these issues, the report says.

Briefly Stated Contributors: Stephen Sawchuk, Sarah D. Sparks, Mark Walsh, and Madeline Will. Edited by Karen Diegmueller.
A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 2020 edition of Education Week

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