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Of Head Start and the SAT

By Rick Hess — September 14, 2015 3 min read
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Just before Labor Day, SAT results for the class of 2015 were released. They weren’t pretty. The results continued on a steady downward trend that has held since the venerable college-admission test was revamped in 2005. In the decade since, average scores have declined from 1514 for the class of 2006 to 1490 for the class of 2015.

While some of this is due to increasing participation rates (including states that have made the SAT mandatory), Seton Hall’s Robert Kelchen has done some back-envelope math and concluded that the recent surge in test-takers accounts for some— but certainly not all— of the decline. Other metrics of high school performance tell the same tale, including the 12th grade National Assesssment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and ACT scores.

What makes the story intriguing is that the past decade has also been a time of steady improvement in the performance of fourth- and eighth-grade students in reading and math on the NAEP. In 2013, fourth- and eighth-graders posted their best NAEP math performance since 1990 and their best reading performance since 1992 (except for 2011, when fourth-graders did even better).

The question is why these elementary and middle school gains aren’t showing up in high school. The conventional response in education circles is to conclude that we’re continuing to get high school “wrong"— that all of the frenzied efforts to adopt new teacher-evaluation systems, standards, and curricula, digital tools, and the rest have had a big impact in K-8 schools but not in high schools. (As the Washington Post headline had it: “Sliding SAT scores prompt an alarm over high schools.”) The conclusion has been that we’re geniuses at K-8 reform, but lunkheads when it comes to 9-12. Hmm.

Here’s the thing: We’ve already had this debate when it comes to Head Start. There, we’ve seen solid early gains melt away by third grade, just as we’ve seen our K-8 results disappear in high school. In that case, though, some of the same people now concluding that we’re geniuses at K-8 but failures at high school have reasoned very differently— there, they (and I) have long doubted how substantial or important the Head Start gains are if they seemingly melt away within a few years.

If we applied the same lens to Head Start that we applied to the SAT, we would conclude that we’ve figured out pre-K— but that we’re still lunkheads when it comes to K-8. The problem is that it’s hard to see how we can both be brilliant and inept at K-8 at the same time. In any event, I’m curious if those who are raising the “alarm” over high schools that are fumbling away our K-8 gains have now decided that Head Start’s initial results are what counts, and the actual problem is K-8 fumbling away our hard-earned pre-K gains.

All this leads me to wonder if we should ask ourselves how valid those prized elementary and middle-school gains really are. There’s always the chance that our data on fourth and eighth-grade performance are misleading. After all, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) systems that states introduced starting in 2002 focused almost entirely on how students fared on reading and math in grades three through eight. We know that schools boosted those reading and math results in part by cannibalizing other instruction, reassigning teachers, shifting time and resources from other grades and subjects, emphasizing test preparation, and the like. Now, the state tests in question are different from the federally administered NAEP reading and math tests, but it’s no great stretch to imagine that the things which help a student do well on the state’s fourth grade reading test also help them do well on the NAEP fourth grade reading test.

What’s been less clear to me is whether those results necessarily reflect meaningful learning. The acid test, I’d think, is whether they carry over to what matters: success in high school, college, and beyond. A decade of stagnant high school metrics is not reassuring, and it’s possible that NCLB’s command-and-control effort to improve schooling could be delivering up a false sense of progress.

All of this is just me musing. There are a lot of moving parts here, and I don’t claim to know what to make of all of them. I am sure, though, that the meaning of these various numbers probably deserves more reflection than the policy community has given it— and much more than chest-thumping proclamations that K-8 “works”, but high schools are broken. In the end, we should find it troubling that a decade of unimpressive high school achievement tells a very different story than the scores usually used to reassure one and all that we’re on the right course.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.