Politicians love numbers. They can twist them and bend them and take them out of context and omit bad ones all in their effort to make the voter feel good, or convinced, or something. Take numbers about economic development. Sometime about the end of the year the governor will announce that we created _______ new jobs in Alabama in the last 12 months. But you never hear one also say that at the same time we lost _____ jobs and overall, the number of people working is actually less than 12 months ago.
Since he voted to hire Michael Sentance as state school chief on Aug. 11, Governor Bentley has mentioned NAEP scores in Massachusetts over and over again. His inference is that since Sentance is from Massachusetts and their NAEP scores are better than ours, we will soon be just like they are.
Unfortunately, the governor does not see the big picture or take things into context and consequently gives us a very distorted view.
First, what are NAEP scores?
NAEP means the National Assessment for Educational Progress, the supposed gold standard of tests. These are given every two years across the country to 4th and 8th graders. Students and schools are picked at random. About 2,500 students in Alabama are tested. Test is 75 minutes long. About 30 students are tested per school. Some must be students with disabilities and English language learners. They are told that they do not get a grade for taking this test.
These tests began in 1992. Since then Alabama has narrowed the gap between our scores and national scores in 4th grade reading and math and in 8th grade reading and math. So we have been doing better than schools across the nation, but no one bothers to tell this story.
And comparing Alabama gains to those in Massachusetts shows that except for 8th grade math, we have matched them stride for stride. So we have been growing our NAEP scores for more than 20 years at the same rate as the Bay State. But no one bothers to mention this because suddenly the picture looks much different.
And here is even more interesting info the governor has not mentioned. One of the most important measures in education is the “achievement gap” between poverty and non-poverty students and between white and African-American students. When you look at 8th grade reading and math and 4th grade reading and math you see the “gap” in Alabama is LESS than the one in Massachusetts in every single case.
Yes, NAEP scores are higher in Massachusetts than in Alabama. The last NAEP scores, from 2015, show they are number 1 in 4th grade reading and math and 8th grade math and number 2 in 8th grade reading. But has their growth been remarkable? Not necessarily considering they were tied for 3rd nationally in 4th grade reading in 1992, tied for 5th in 4th grade math, and number 7 in 8th grade math and were number 4 in 8th grade reading in 1998 (as far back as scores go in this category).
Sure seems to me that when you study the numbers in their entirety and not just cherry pick them to suit your narrative, Alabama has been running just as fast as Massachusetts for more than two decades.
And governor, do you think a real education consists of ONLY math and reading? What about the sciences, the arts, extra curricular activities? Do you know any Alabama students going to college on a band scholarship or to be on a debate team, much less an athletic team?
Children are so much, much more than just data points on a damn graph. And the totality of an education can not be neatly wrapped up in a few numbers politicians use to convince the public they are right and all of us are wrong. The sweat and struggle teachers go through daily with special needs children and those who come to school hungry and with an abscessed tooth can not be adequately valued with one test given every other year to a handful of students.
And to worship at the alter of NAEP is not what education should be about.