William J. Mathis: Beat the dead horse harder

Editor’s note: This commentary is by William J. Mathis, of Goshen, who served as a design consultant for the National Assessment of Education Progress as well as for numerous states. He is a member of the Vermont State Board of Education and managing director of the National Education Policy Center. The views expressed are solely those of the author. 

The latest round of flagellation of dead horse flesh has been provoked by the release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores. After 20 years of overall progress, many of the scores went down. While all groups improved over the long haul, the gaps between white and other racial groups varied over time but generally remained in place.[i] Education critics lament and proclaim, “It’s time to get tough! Let’s do some more of what didn’t work!” Meanwhile officials whisper measured words through steepled fingers saying they are “concerned,” that we must do more to ensure our students are well prepared to compete with China and “we have more work to do.” Still others claim that this exercise in numerology is helpful.

Put plainly, standardized tests have no meaningful relationship with economic development and they are poor definers of learning needs. Nevertheless, the NAEP is a valuable outside way of examining trends.

The scores dropped across the nation — which tells us one important thing. The causes are not found in local or state initiatives. Something bigger is at play. Since the scores themselves do not tell us why they are low, we have to look at broad contemporary events and circumstances. This means looking at the research and related social and historical events.

Such is the case with NAEP. The strongest predictor of standardized test scores is poverty.[ii] In this latest release, the biggest drops were among disadvantaged students. Sean Riordan at Stanford has compiled a data base of all school districts in the nation and found that test scores are most affected by this single construct.[iii]

He goes on to note that schools are highly segregated by class and by race. In fact, society is showing signs of resegregating.[iv] Resolving these gaps is our first threshold issue.  High needs children are concentrated in high poverty schools which are, on average, less effective than schools with lower poverty. In a vicious cycle, poor schools are provided lesser resources. Compounding the problem, the Census Bureau tells us the wealth gap has sharply increased across the nation. Many schools across the nation have not recovered from the 2008 fiscal crisis and the federal government has never provided the promised support for needy children.

Regardless, the schools were mandated to solve the test score problem. The trouble was that the policymakers got it backwards. Poverty prevents learning. It is the threshold issue. Without resorting to what we knew, the dead horse was beaten once more with the No Child Left Behind Act. We adopted the Common Core curriculum, punished schools, and fired principals and teachers whose misfortune was being assigned to a school with high concentrations of needy children. It was literally expected that a child from a broken home, hungry and with ADHD would be ready to sit down and learn quadratic equations.  Nevertheless, the test-based school accountability approach emerged and still remains the dominant school philosophy. While it is claimed that successful applications exist, the research has not been found that says poverty can be overcome by beating the dead horse. The irony is that the tests themselves show that a test based system is not a successful reform strategy.

Regardless of the dismal results, there is some reason to be optimistic. Policy researchers from across the spectrum agree that test based accountability has not been successful. On one end are Diane Ravitch and David Berliner who point to the lack of support provided to schools. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Michael Petrelli of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute agrees.  They further agree that we must attend to social and emotional learning.

We live in troubled times. We face pathological shooters, communal activities are waning, our political establishment is wobbly and basic economic well-being is threatened. We must certainly prepare the younger generations to be ready for the workforce and, that means keeping a sufficient number of independent measures of academic achievement, geared to the needed skills of society. Yet, while we teach fundamentals, our most important obligation is to prepare all of our children to enhance the values of our heritage, guided by equality and democracy, as our paramount and universal values.

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Thankfully. The public gets it. But it will not be solved by beating a dead horse.

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Jay Eshelman

At least Mr. Mathis recognizes that his horse is dead. Hopefully he’ll finally agree to step aside and let parents move on with their own education initiatives.

Tim Vincent

As I recall Mathis had a lot to do with pushing the case that resulted in the Brigham decision and then Act 60 which. as we all know, has exponentially raised property taxes with no different education results as enrollment declines.
Now he (like most of the “ed business”) objects to standardized testing.
“Give me unlimited money and no accountability and I’ll call it public education.”


Mathis makes a critical point: The strongest predictor of standardized test scores is poverty.

If you ever looked at NAEP questions, you’d see how much they take for granted a culture of affluence, dependent on test takers who have access to books and access to a wide variety of cultural experiences.

Stop blaming teachers, raise the minimum wage, and do something about lower income housing.

Karen McIlveen1

As if more money fixes everything….
no viable plans, no forethought, limited data, no accountability. Just holler about family income and advocate for more money.
Taxpayers are getting tired of this mode for correcting social and spending issues.

Christopher Daniels

The school choice solves all trope needs to be in its grave. It’s a euphemism for destroying public schools and breaking teacher unions sallied about by libertarians who don’t believe in public education and think teachers are greedy moochers from the public trough.

Robert Gifford

I pay 400 a month for our average schools and my kids have not been there for many years. My wife and I were our kids primary educators not the school. We are getting pretty sick of paying for kids whose parents don’t really care. We will live off savings next year and cut our property taxes in half. Yea for the progressives that put no means test in for a property tax rebate. If you can’t beat them join them. Then perhaps we will take our retirement somewhere else where kids don’t cost 20K a year to pretend to educate.Vermont needs to get rid of supervisory unions, they don’t teach and at 61 years old I don’t even know what they do. How did we go from one room school houses to the current system? We are off the rails currently. This doesn’t end well so a course correction is way overdue. 25 kids cost a half a million dollars a year? 25 kids cost a half million a year?

Jay Eshelman

Is the public school monopoly ‘trope’, that benefits special interest groups more than the children they serve, any better? At least School Choice allows parents to choose their poison.

david miltenberger

As a former teacher I can say that standardized testing is informative; otherwise there will be no accountability. Of course the best predictor of success on those tests as well as future economic success is one’s socio-economic background. So what! The tests can identify schools and perhaps educational strategies that might be helping those children who come from more modest backgrounds to succeed. The movement to get rid of this testing is terribly misguided.

John Pelletier

Bill–thanks for the thoughtful OPED. The NAEP scores released are for grade 4 and grade 8 in both mathematics and reading. There is something very troubling about the data. The scores in all four of these testing areas dropped in every instance from 2011 to 2019 for Vermont. From 2011 to 2019 only 16 states (32%) had 4th grade mathematics NAEP score decreases. Vermont is one of these states. From 2011 to 2019 only 21 states (42%) had 8th grade mathematics NAEP score decreases. Vermont is one of these states. From 2011 to 2019 only 13 states (26%) had 4th grade reading NAEP score decreases. Vermont is one of these states. From 2011 to 2019 only 24 states (48%) had 8th grade reading NAEP score decreases. Vermont is one of these states. Other states grades are staying flat or increasing on some of these tests–but sadly Vermont is not one of them. What could have caused this trend? Your proficiency based learning mandate.

Laura Stone

I read a comment from a Brit. about Brexit: “You don’t know how enslaved you are until you go to leave.”
I believe we can say the same exact thing about Education here.
There are decades and decades of data saying we are declining as well as social issues that show this clearly. Mike Rowe, the ‘Dirty Jobs’ guy wrote a book recently saying we have now 7.3M open positions where a degree is not required. How much more failure in Education do we need to see?
What this is, in its essence, is a war between the Will of the People to leave or try to fix this in a way agreeable to them vs. The Industrial Educational Complex that refuses to surrender money and power to the people.
Our Taxpayer created Educational system has been destroyed which some are now calling an Act Of War.
The attempt to fix it is being denied= The Will of the People being Denied.. It’s not unlike a broken EU that no longer works and the will to leave it.
This is broken systems that enrich and peoples desire to leave.


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