Former governors: NAEP issued a report card we can’t ignore

Two former Southern governors address new national test scores that revealed dramatic drops in math and reading. U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona described the results released Monday from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, better known as the “nation’s report card,” as “appalling and unacceptable.”

Beverly Perdue served as North Carolina governor from 2009-2013. Haley Barbour served as Mississippi governor from 2004-2012. Both are members of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policies for the “nation’s report card.” Perdue is the chair of the board.

By Beverly Perdue and Haley Barbour

The latest ”nation’s report card is akin to a five-alarm fire. We need a big response to a big problem.

The report card released Monday shows reading and math scores for fourth and eighth graders have declined precipitously since 2019, the last time the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests were administered nationally, across states, and in some urban districts.

Eighth graders posted the biggest score declines ever seen in math. Shockingly, nearly 40% of eighth grade students performed below the NAEP Basic achievement level on the math assessment. Our goal is to get all kids to the NAEP Proficient level, where they can demonstrate competency over challenging subject matter, but many kids aren’t anywhere close.

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Students took these tests last school year, so those eighth graders are in high school today. We have just three-and-a-half years to close these pandemic-related learning gaps or these kids will graduate without the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in college and the workforce. This should serve as a wake-up call for education and state leaders. As former governors, we’re wondering how states will attract new businesses and help residents secure jobs in forward-looking STEM fields if young people are leaving high school with these gaps in math.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

We’ve focused a lot of attention as a nation on reading in recent years, particularly as new evidence has emerged about the science of reading, or the most effective ways to build literacy skills. Both our states have enacted exemplary policies aligned to that research.

We can’t backtrack on that — more than a third of U.S. fourth graders are performing below the NAEP Basic level in reading on the latest report card. But we also need to invest in and develop consensus, rooted in evidence from research, around the best practices in math instruction to improve achievement in this critical subject.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

About those achievement levels. We’ve been fielding plenty of questions lately about whether our goals on the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policies and achievement levels for the ”nation’s report card,” are too high — especially in light of the pandemic. Our answer is an emphatic no. We can’t move the goalpost just because we’re running behind. We have to train harder, to run faster.

That means we need to accelerate student learning so young people can close learning gaps in a timely way. It’s not easy. In a survey accompanying the “nation’s report card,” teachers reported low confidence in their ability to address student learning gaps. Educators need strong professional learning opportunities and high-quality resources to help them identify and meet the needs of every student in their classroom. Educators and leaders should look at the evidence around what works and invest in those strategies. There is unprecedented federal funding available to address pandemic-related learning gaps, but we need to spend that money wisely and in ways that address our most urgent needs.

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We know we’re asking a lot at an already difficult time. In addition to having to address learning gaps, educators are seeing children with increasing mental health challenges, and many teachers are working in understaffed schools. But the fact is we can’t get out of this mess without leaning on and leveraging the power of teachers.

We were reflecting on the impact of great teachers on our lives recently. Haley was remembering Mr. Buckley, his math teacher at Yazoo City High School on the edge of the Mississippi Delta who taught 11 kids Advanced Algebra one year. Mr. Buckley held each student to high expectations, but since they all got A’s and B’s in the class, they sometimes wondered whether Mr. Buckley was an easy grader. That went out the window when nine out of the 11 students scored in the top 10% on the standardized, subject-matter test at the end of the year, and the other two came pretty close. It turns out Mr. Buckley was an excellent teacher and the kids knew their stuff.

For Bev, her seventh grade teacher Mrs. Beck was enormously influential. She helped a shy student from Grundy, Virginia, see that a coal miner’s daughter from rural Virginia could be anything she wanted to be if she put her mind to it and worked hard.

Today we’re both grandparents, and we see how hardworking teachers are shaping the lives of the little ones we love dearly. But teachers can’t do it alone. School and system leaders, policymakers, business leaders, and families have to come together around helping students make progress.

That means putting differences aside. As members of opposing political parties, there are plenty of things we disagree on. However, giving all children the great education they need and deserve isn’t one of them. The midterm elections are fast approaching, and people on both sides of the aisle will likely try to make hay out of these test scores to win political points. We urge them to think twice.

The latest report card for the nation presents a somber picture of how our children are doing. It requires all of us to examine the data and use it, along with other measures, to guide decision making around student learning. Anything short of that will be a major disservice to our kids and our country at a time when, as we emerge from this pandemic, both need our support.