Over the last two years, U.S. education was rocked by school closures and interrupted learning. As of spring 2022, 60% of our kids were not doing math on grade level and 50% are below grade level in reading. Parents are frustrated by their lack of ability to control what’s happening to their children. To listen to their concerns, we hosted a Parent Empowerment Tour with 18 stops across Texas. 

We heard frustration at the lack of transparency and quality. We heard parents who contacted their schools only to be shuffled through a costly grievance process that offered no help. We heard from parents who want, need, and deserve options. This week the Nation’s Report Card again confirmed what parents have been saying for two years now: we are not ok. 

The Nation’s Report Card 

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is called the Nation’s Report Card because it helps us see how students in each state are doing. The Main NAEP test is given every two years to students in grades 4, 8, and 12, and state-level data is available for grades 4 and 8. 

The test, similar to STAAR, provides a helpful measure of learning loss caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

In the announcement, we learned that math scores dropped for the first time in 50 years, and reading scores dropped for the first time since the 1980s. Peggy Carr, the NCES Commissioner, described how parents should react:  

“Parents should be worried. But they need to turn that worry into action. This isn’t going away. It’s not going to get better if we look away. We have a whole generation of students whose academic careers are now off track. This is a serious issue. It’s not to be taken lightly. Parents need to work with their schools and their teachers to help their students.” 

Lost Learning. To help policymakers and their staff see NAEP student achievement, we are offering a simple comparison tool that you can download here: NAEP, Grade 4 & 8 Summary. 

Using this tool, we can see that 10 years ago, 40% of Texas students were Proficient or Advanced in Math, 27% in Reading. Today, only 23% are Proficient or Advanced in either topic. 

A Gap Between Standards & Knowledge. What does it mean that over 75% of our students are below Proficient? Here are examples of what NAEP is testing. These show what Texas 8th graders cannot do, despite the fact that they are about to enter high school. For example, when reading, students cannot: 

  1. use context to determine the definition of ambiguous words,
  2. identify one or both sides of an argument, or
  3. offer an opinion about an author’s evidence to support a claim or argument.

When doing math, 8th grade students cannot:

  1. perform basic operations (ex. addition, subtraction, multiplication, division) with rational numbers using proper units (ex. inches, feet);
  2. convert between fractions, decimals, and percent in basic operations;
  3. determine possible dimensions of a shape, given its area and volume;
  4. classify angle measurements using diagrams and protractors;
  5. understand concepts of parallel and perpendicular lines; or
  6. evaluate and extend sequential and recursive patterns.

When we compare Texas’ Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) to the knowledge and skills that NAEP is testing, we find that Texas students are expected to:

  1. use text context to clarify unfamiliar or ambiguous words by 8th grade;
  2. every year, from 3rd to 5th grade, recognize the character and structure of an argument;
  3. every year from 6th to 8th grade, analyze arguments and compose their own.

For math, Texas students are expected to:

  1. “add and subtract positive rational numbers fluently” in 5th grade, with fluency in multiplication and division coming in 6th grade;
  2. convert fractions, decimals, and percent by 6th grade,
  3. answer questions about volume’s relation to perimeter and area by 5th grade, so that by 8th grade students are solving problems related to the volume and surface area of cylinders, cones, spheres, and prisms;
  4. determine angle measurements with protractors in 4th grade;
  5. identify perpendicular and parallel lines beginning in 4th grade; and
  6. generate a number pattern that follows a given rule in 4th grade and recognize additive and multiplicative patterns by 5th grade.

What’s Causing the Gap? In other words, if students learned what the TEKS defined, they would excel on the NAEP. So why is there a gap between what students should know and what they actually know? Three key reasons discovered by the Teacher Vacancy Task Force are:

  1. students are not consistently exposed to rigor,
  2. teachers do not have consistent access to rigorous instructional material, and
  3. teachers do not have enough time to prepare rigorous lessons.

To set teachers up for success, school systems need to provide the content to be taught so that teachers can focus on delivery. (As Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion shows, great delivery alone is a master craft.) But in many Texas schools, teachers must define what to teach and how to teach it. Without support, teachers spend an average of seven hours a week developing or selecting materials, primarily from Google and Pinterest, but they have less than four hours a week from their school to complete this task. As Robert Pondiscio observed, “It’s like expecting the waiter at your favorite restaurant to serve your meal attentively while simultaneously cooking for 25 other people—and doing all the shopping and prepping the night before.” And in this rushed and just-in-time preparation, parents cannot have transparency; how can they know what their child will learn this semester if the content is being prepared a few days before class?

As a result, only 19% of lessons are on grade level. This problem must be understood.

An A+ on a below-grade assignment is not only insufficient—it’s harmfully misleading. Kids sail through school, lacking the benefits that education should provide: a path to prosperous work, an understanding of why and how to care for their neighbor, and practice in virtues allowing for lifelong freedom and happiness.

The Matthew Effect. In the Gospel of Matthew, we find the lesson: “For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Without foundational knowledge, students below NAEP Proficient pass from 8th grade to high school woefully unprepared.

It’s not their fault, but it is their problem: 93% of students who fall behind never catch up. For their peers who are Proficient or Advanced, horizons expand: they take advanced courses and enroll in a top-ranked university, or receive best-in-class training from TSTC and earn their place among high-skilled, high-wage workers. For students who are behind, what was once possible when walked joyfully into Kindergarten is now out of reach. Is it any surprise that parents are deeply frustrated by the lack of transparency and quality?

The NAEP scores released this week confirm what parents have been shouting from the rooftops. The future of Texas is in our families—it’s time we started listening to them.