Recently released national test scores saw significant declines in math and reading in virtually all states. Yet not all state leaders reacted with similar alarm. So, while both their states experienced low test scores, California Gov. Gavin Newsom shockingly sent out a boastful press release, while Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin put out a detailed plan to raise student achievement.
In his press release, Mr. Newsom claimed, “California performed better than most other states and the nation from 2019-22.” Yet this claim is highly misleading.
Mr. Newsom’s assertion is based on a comparison of California’s scoring decline on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam from 2019 to 2022 versus the decline in other states.
As the Los Angeles Times noted, however, California’s 2022 NAEP scores “do not reflect strong student performance” because before the pandemic, “the state was underperforming compared to the national averages in reading and math.” Thus, the state’s scores “still left large percentages of students not achieving proficiency.”
Take, for example, the NAEP results for eighth grade math and reading. Not only do California’s test scores lag behind the national average, but they also show declines from the state’s already low 2019 performance.
So, while it is true that eighth grade reading scores dropped only 0.04 points from 2019 to 2022, that still means that only a meager 30% of California eighth graders scored at the proficient level in both 2019 and 2022.
Worse, just 23% of eighth graders scored at the proficient level in math in 2022, a large drop from the 29% who achieved proficiency in 2019.
Perhaps the most inconvenient truth that Mr. Newsom ignores in his unwarranted victory lap is the disastrously low performance of vulnerable student groups.
In eighth grade math, just 7% of Black eighth graders performed at the proficient level in 2022 versus 10% in 2019, while Hispanic proficiency fell from 15% to 11%.
Yet in the face of this catastrophic implosion of student learning, Mr. Newsom failed to propose any new, effective initiatives but bragged about “making record investments to mitigate learning loss,” including “$23.8 billion to support students during the pandemic” through various government programs. Given the appalling levels of reading and math proficiency in the state, all that spending resulted in little bang for the taxpayer’s buck.
In contrast to Mr. Newsom’s boasts, Mr. Youngkin confronted his state’s test-score disaster and proposed a new set of education reforms.
On the NAEP eighth grade reading exam, 33% of Virginia students scored at the proficient level in 2019 versus 31% in 2022, while on the eighth grade math exam, 38% hit proficiency in 2019 versus 31% in 2022.
In response, Mr. Youngkin said, “The NAEP results are another loud wake-up call: our nation’s children have experienced catastrophic learning loss, and Virginia’s students are among the hardest hit.”
He warned, “Virginia may lose a generation of children — particularly among our most in need.”
Mr. Youngkin then issued a multi-point plan to improve achievement for Virginia’s children.
His plan would raise expectations for students by raising the benchmark for proficiency on Virginia’s state exams.
As opposed to Mr. Newsom’s government-knows-best orientation, Mr. Youngkin proposes making grants available directly to parents so they can access “in-person, virtual, or hybrid tutoring in one-on-one, small group, or large group settings.”
Further, he proposes partnerships with private education providers such as the Khan Academy to provide tutoring and homework support.
He also proposes greater accountability for failing public schools by strengthening the state’s school accreditation system.
Finally, he proposes making student performance data more transparent for parents, plus pushing schools to spend federal COVID-19 dollars on learning recovery.
As the nation tries to find ways to rescue children from the learning quicksand of the past two years, Americans should beware of leaders who pat themselves on the back for illusory achievements and look to those who propose innovative ways to address the causes of student underperformance and give parents the tools to help their children.
• Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute. Wenyuan Wu is executive director of Californians for Equal Rights Foundation. They are co-authors of an upcoming book critiquing critical race theory in schools.
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