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States are fighting over whose learning loss is the worst

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The NAEP National Education Assessment is known as the “nation’s report card” because it gives policymakers a window into national learning. Released last month, the latest results are shown large national declines in math and reading scoresshowing how devastating the pandemic has been to learning.

The ratings also led states to jostle for position as they sought whose education systems were more devastated by the pandemic.

For example, immediately after the results, California Governor Gavin Newsom’s office issued a press release boasting that his state “surpassed most states in learning loss.” The release noted that California’s math scores declined less than other states. Newsom credited the performance to the state 23.8 billion dollars to increase funding for education, but also acknowledged that it was not “a celebration, but a call to action”.

In some states, observers boasted even more about their relative effectiveness. In Alabama, for example, a news analysis of the state’s NAEP results explained that the state is no longer at the bottom of the list in terms of learning loss. commenting on this“the nation’s misfortune is Alabama’s gain.”

It’s tempting to make these comparisons, and the national figure broken down by state is almost competitive. But the practice is “really problematic,” says Karin Lewis, director of the Center for School and Progress at the NWEA academic assessment nonprofit.

“Unfortunately, I think calls for comparison between states are really problematic,” Lewis says.

She argues that NAEP results are really only meant to provide a snapshot of student performance in certain grades every couple of years that policymakers at the federal and state levels can use to make investment decisions. Taking them out of context and placing them in conversation with individual outcomes such as health scores can be misleading.
Worse, competitiveness can be destructive.

Comparisons between states can give a false sense of confidence to those who rank higher. And it can demoralize teachers who do the hard work in states that fall at the bottom of the rankings. When teachers are already facing each other severe burnout and unprecedented challenges, it may not be ideal.

“Those kinds of comparisons, I think, demoralize people and make them feel defeated,” says Mia Datteri, a researcher at NWEA who focuses on literacy.

Daughtery draws on her own experience. She used to be a teacher in Las Vegas, she says, and when she saw her state at the bottom of the list, it made her feel depressed and unmotivated, like she was being blamed for larger systemic problems. “It’s not inspiring,” she says. “It doesn’t help.”

Lewis adds that when states look for comparisons, they should find states similar to theirs that have made some improvements. These states, at least, may have applicable lessons.

The focus should be on the future, not the past, she argues.

“I would hate to see us use these results to further challenge past decisions that were made and place the blame on places where we failed,” Lewis says. “I think we need to be more introspective and think about how we use this to do better in the future.”

There are signs that other education leaders are seeing the downside of education rankings.

Just last week, for example, Yale and Harvard Law schools, as well as the University of California, Berkeley, were dropped from the US News & World Report rankings. While these schools tend to top the list, Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken says the ranking system set up “fancy” dynamics unrelated to improving the education of their students.

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