What’s responsible for the NAEP rise? (We can’t be sure yet)

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Minnesota had a brief moment of unity celebrating the gains we’ve made in educational equity. Then the credit-and-blame processes kicked into gear.

The cause for celebration was the release of 2013 scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). It showed Minnesota’s younger students starting to pull us out of “one of the biggest gaps in the country” territory into “typical gap size” territory. Particularly of note was that Minnesota’s black 4th graders had the 4th highest performance in the country.

These are definitely signs of improvement on this measure, although big gaps remain. To what can we attribute these gains? That’s a tricky question.

First, we need to look at the gains in context. Many groups of students have seen gradual, if uneven, improvement over the last decade.



(Data from NAEP)

Figuring out who or what is responsible for the changes is a very tricky question, and the answer is probably lots of little things at once. Let’s start with what probably wasn’t responsible:

  • Minnesota’s new teacher evaluation law. The new system is only being piloted in some districts this school year and wouldn’t have had an impact last year.
  • Recent investments in early childhood. While we’ll hopefully see gains from those in a few years, the students who benefited from it weren’t (and still aren’t) in 4th grade.
  • Charter schools generally. Except for a handful of standouts, most charters in Minnesota have roughly comparable test scores to their district peers (which have a few standouts of their own). Also, the policy’s been in place since the early 1990’s, so how it would trigger more rapid change right now is a little mysterious.

Also, reform darling Louisiana and union-busting Wisconsin saw their scores stay mostly flat.

If you’re looking for what could explain it, here are a few things to consider:

  • The education system is more testing focused. Perhaps Minnesota students have improved their test-taking skills faster than other states. While good for our scores, this actually wouldn’t say much about real changes in learning.
  • Minnesota’s recovery is stronger than most other states’. It’s been an uneven recovery, though, and many black and Hispanic Minnesotans haven’t seen the same benefits as white Minnesotans.

Figuring out what drives test scores is complex, and we don’t have the information and analysis yet to really figure out what drove the 2013 NAEP gains. Keep that in mind when someone’s telling you what they think did the trick.