Track 13 – What’s The Plan?

As usual, in Mastermind, track 13, Taylor Swift said it better than I ever could.

If you fail to plan, you plan to failStrategy sets the scene for the tale

So, as Jessica Baghian asked on Twitter, “What’s the plan?” – “the specific plan chiefs and governors articulate to address kids’ needs.”

Of course, before you articulate a plan to address kids’ needs, it’s kind of critical for policymakers to understand, to be able to communicate, and to create consensus around what those needs are.

There is absolutely no question that the disruptions to schooling (and students’ lives, in general) over the past three school years threw students’ learning off track. In planning to get kids and their learning “back on track”, however, it’s critical that policymakers and educators get it right; that is, that they make the right assumptions and reach the right conclusions about how and why students were thrown off track. To extend and belabor my track mixing metaphors just a little longer

  • Was the “learning train” brought to a complete stop because a mudslide or a herd of 100,000 caribou, maybe even a million, blocked the track?
  • Was the “learning train” slowed down intermittently because of wet or icy tracks and poor visibility?
  • Was student learning slowed because the high-speed express train was not available, and students had to take Amtrak regional service or worse yet, the commuter rail?
  • Or did the train derail?

And when the situation that slowed learning is resolved, what happens next?

Will the aging infrastructure (tracks, train, staff, etc.) already desperately in need of repair and upgrade before the pandemic be able to support the increased speed needed to get students back on track.

Each of the train and track problems described presents a distinct set of challenges, each of which requires a particular solution and a specific plan to implement that solution.

What problem(s) are we trying to solve?

These Aren’t Your Parents NAEP Scores – Or Are They?

Student performance on the 2022 NAEP LTT and State NAEP is at levels not seen in 20 years or even 30. How does one interpret those scores?

Apparently with as much hand-wringing hyperbole and as many sensational headlines as possible.

I reject claims that the pandemic wiped out two decades of educational progress as not only meaningless, but also patently false; and I view the authoritative and alarmist claims that the decline in NAEP scores will have far-reaching effects on the lifetime earning power of current students and the future of the US economy as feckless and frighteningly simplistic.

Let’s try a different tack. If student scores in 2022 are equivalent to those 20-30 years ago why doesn’t the headline and lede read something like this:

The American Dream: A Public Education Success Story

In the midst of a global pandemic, overcoming the adversity of historic disruptions to their schooling for the last three school years, fourth and eighth grade students across the country, hailed by President Biden as “the single most educated generation in American history”, were able to perform at a level that matched or exceeded the performance displayed by their parents a generation earlier – parents who had experienced uninterrupted the best educational opportunities that their cities and towns had to offer at the time. God Bless Public Schools and God Bless the United States of America.

Over the top? Perhaps, but no more so than “catastrophic declines” that  “wiped out two decades of educational progress.”

Why insist that the glass half-empty?

Even if you view public education as a delicate, precarious game of Jenga and think that the tower has fallen, the simple fact is that the tower’s foundation is much stronger and its floor is much higher than they were 20 or 30 years ago.  Further, we have better tools and more efficient and effective strategies with which to rebuild.

So, let’s get on with it.

Get up Lad, Get Up

What is wrong with the notion that solution to the current problem is that we must accelerate learning?

The term accelerating learning evokes imagery of the gap between the current state of student achievement and the 2019 state (or some desired state such as Proficient) as ground that must be made up step-by-step. I cannot help but recall this incredibly moving scene when Harold Abrahams first encounters Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire.

As much as I love that scene, such a linear view of student learning reflects a lack of understanding of a) how children (and all humans) learn and b) how schooling works. As a simple psychometrician, I claim no expertise in how children learn or how schools work, but I know what Jere Confrey says about learning trajectories:

Confrey says learning trajectories take into account all the ways a student can learn or interact with a problem. Instead of viewing learning as a ladder that a student climbs step by step, she says it is really more like a climbing wall. Students encounter obstacles and landmarks that are predictable, but each student will take somewhat different paths up the wall. When teachers are aware of those obstacles and landmarks, they can better support students as they move from naive to sophisticated thinking.

And I know that Neal Kingston’s Learning Maps show me that student learning is anything but linear:

Kingston Learning Map

And love them or hate them, I know that virtually every K-12 vertical scale ever constructed, from the cornfields of Iowa to the Redwood Forests in California to the recently repaired causeway to Sanibel Island in Florida, shows me that student learning decelerates over grades K to 12; and more importantly, the gap between grade-to-grade achievement levels on criterion-referenced test scales decreases as well.


Even in mathematics, where the Smarter Balanced vertical scale (above) appears a little less flat, students must cover more than twice the distance between 3rd and 5th grade as they cover following 8th grade.

Let’s face it. A large portion of PK-12 schooling beyond elementary school is devoted to practicing and reinforcing existing knowledge and skills. Is some new content, new context, and perhaps some new technique introduced along the way? Sure, but the main purpose and function of secondary schools is to provide students with opportunities to practice, strengthen, hone, and apply their foundational skills. It’s the same whether we’re talking about skills in music and athletics, or in English language arts and mathematics.

Understanding and acknowledging the realities described above enables us to expand our thinking about what it means to get students back on track and how to help them get there. Beginning with helping them learn how to be students again.

Perhaps it also will help us to view the problem differently for students in the Classes of 2023 and 2024 than we do for those students who produced these fourth and eighth grade NAEP scores or for students entering first grade next fall.

The Long and The Short of It (and the Immediate, too)

We all understand that there are problems that require immediate attention and solutions and that these problems are different from long term problems. Ramping up remote learning and getting devices (and meals) into the hands of students in Spring 2020 was an immediate problem. Reimagining schooling is a long-term problem, or at least a longer-term problem. In between, there are intermediate, or short-term, problems like planning for next semester or next year.

We usually understand that immediate, short-term, and long-term problems require different approaches and different solutions, perhaps even different skill sets to address them.

A wise man once told me that we often fail to understand, however, that we cannot task the same individual (or team) with addressing immediate, short-term, and long-term problems simultaneously. That type of multi-tasking is never effective – a recipe for failure, at best.

Student learning?

What are the immediate problems that need to be solved and who is in the best position to solve them?

Aside from ensuring that federal and state funds are distributed in a fair and timely manner, what should state policymakers be doing to address immediate problems? Which regulations should they be loosening, tightening, or modifying right now?  What supports and guidance is needed? What data collection and monitoring systems need to be in place yesterday, next month, next fall?

Reimagining public schools? Same questions.

Interconnected, perhaps, but reimagining schools is distinct from immediate recovery efforts and also from the so-call long-term goals states established under ESSA.

Public schooling was in need of an overhaul, of reimagining, prior to the pandemic. But we weren’t even out of March 2020 when I heard a state chief proclaim in a meeting that public education would never be the same because of the pandemic. He may have been projecting a hope rather than stating a certainty or even making a prediction.

Moving from dreaming it to doing it will require long-term commitment and a long-term plan that addresses everything from crystallizing the role of early childhood education, to ensuring equity in educational opportunities for all students, to rebuilding (not simply repairing or renovating) the educational infrastructure, to establishing postsecondary pathways, to the reform of curriculum, instruction, and assessment, and oh yeah, to figuring out how to adequately and consistently fund schools?

Policymakers who fail to recognize the distinction between the immediate problems of pandemic recovery and long-term problem of reimagining public education will do a disservice to both current and future educators and students.

Irreconcilable Differences

Despite my glass half-full outlook at the top of this post, fear not that I have become a Pollyanna with regard to either the 2022 NAEP scores or the ongoing efforts to reform public education. Although, one might argue that there must be a bit of Pollyanna in anyone who chooses to enter this battle believing that their little, indirect contribution can help improve public education and make life and learning better for students.

A career as a specialist in large-scale assessment means dealing constantly with irreconcilable differences. We possess tools that address questions about large groups in a field with stakeholders who have become increasingly intent on finding answers for individual students.

Case in point, I find myself trying to reconcile reports of the success achieved by LAUSD with the story of The Case of the Vanishing Sixth Grader that I heard on NPR’s This American Life earlier this year.

Or in general, trying to reconcile reports that the NAEP results suggest that the students hurt most by the pandemic were those who could least afford it with reports that TUDA results suggest that large districts held their own during the pandemic (at least in Reading).

I am trying to reconcile claims that we have to accelerate learning like never before in our history with historical NAEP data that tell me the NCLB goal of achieving 100% proficiency by 2014 was a much heavier lift. That statement is inarguable.

I’ll admit that I have never met anyone personally who believed that the NCLB goal was attainable (well, except perhaps for Mike Cohen and Laura Slover), but it was a national goal nonetheless and one much more daunting than the current predicament.

And what of these 2022 NAEP scores? It’s difficult for me to become apoplectic over mean declines of 3-8 points when the pre-pandemic gaps between students at the 25th and 75th percentile (the middle 50% of all students) were approximately 50 points – and remain at that level. The gap between students at the 10th and 90th percentiles is closer to 100 points on three of the four tests.

I have no idea what a mean difference of 3-8 points suggests in terms of what students cannot do now in Reading and Mathematics that students in 2019 could do. And I haven’t seen or heard much in the last week that even attempts to answer that question.

I am certain, however, that gaps of 50 and 100 points reflect a very real problem that must be addressed.

I have read claims (I hesitate to call them estimates) that it may take several years, perhaps half a decade, for current students to recover learning lost to the pandemic. The good news is that fourth- and eighth-grade students whose performance is reflected in the 2022 NAEP results will be in school for several years, fourth graders for more than half a decade, younger students for a decade or more.

How long will it take to close those 50–100-point gaps and move the entire student distribution toward proficiency?

On the bright side, I have not seen any evidence that the big picture, long-term problems with public education are any worse now than they were in 2019.

Is that a glass half-full interpretation?

I’m not sure, but after three years of a pandemic, I don’t see how it could have been better than this. I’ll take it.

Image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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