How relaxing school accountability has hurt academic achievement

I have been a broken record on the fact that Minnesota’s academic achievement woes existed years before government policy responses to COVID exacerbated learning declines.

In fact, it was because of these pre-COVID downward learning trends that caused many of us to sound the alarm on state education leaders stubbornly sticking by their shutdown decisions. While there has been a recent call for “urgency and focus” around recovery efforts, it is unfortunate there hasn’t been the same sense of urgency over the past decade.

For example, nationwide average math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) peaked around 2013 but have been falling since then, according to an analysis done by Chad Aldeman for The 74. “Worse, the averages are masking a growing achievement gap between the highest and lowest performers. That gap was growing pre-pandemic and has only widened.”

Take a look below at the change in Minnesota 8th grade math scores on NAEP from 2003-2013 and then 2013-2022.

Source: NAEP data, created by Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Chad Aldeman

What changed? Well, accountability pressures, for one, points out Aldeman. When then-Pres. Barack Obama announced in 2012 that he was granting state waivers from the federal No Child Left Behind Act, he “waved away the notion that all schools needed to make ‘adequate yearly progress’ for all students and for individual student groups.”

Even though the No Child Left Behind Act wasn’t especially popular, schools were required to demonstrate their success in terms of the academic achievement of every student. Its accountability pressures resulted in “a decade-plus of small but significant gains” that while were “perhaps smaller than policymakers and educators might have preferred” were broadly shared, continues Aldeman.

In eighth-grade math, for example, the lowest and highest performers both improved about 8 points  — close to a year’s worth of progress — on NAEP, the Nation’s Report Card, from 2003 to 2013.

When those school and district accountability pressures were relaxed by Obama, it set off “a decline in student performance across the country,” writes Aldeman. When the Every Student Succeeds Act was passed and then signed by Obama in 2015, “achievement scores had already begun to fall” and the “declines were uneven,” documents Aldeman.

From 2013 to 2019, scores for the lowest-performing 10% of students fell 7 points, versus a gain of 3 points for students at the higher end. The response to COVID-19 would eventually widen the gap even further, but it had been growing well before anyone had ever heard of the coronavirus.

Today, achievement gaps are growing across subjects and all across the country. Overall, 49 of 50 states, the District of Columbia and 17 out of 20 of the large cities that participated in NAEP saw a widening of their achievement gap over the last decade. 

Do economic factors explain these achievement trends?

While recessions and periods of rising unemployment impact students, particularly the most disadvantaged ones, “the timing isn’t right,” explains Aldeman.

The economic recovery throughout the 2010s [from the Great Recession of 2007-09] and the rise in education spending should have augured well for student performance. Yet, the opposite was happening as achievement fell and gaps grew.

What about Common Core?

Aldeman finds similar flaws with arguments around the Common Core. “If disruptions associated with the shift to the Common Core were the cause, the scores should have rebounded over time. But they didn’t.”

It’s also possible that the Common Core pushed schools to cover different topics in a different order, but that doesn’t explain why achievement gaps grew even in non-Common Core states such as Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia, or why the same patterns appear in civics and history, which the Common Core did not address.

Bottom line: How school systems were once held accountable generally helped both lower performing students and their higher performing peers see achievement gains. Under softened accountability systems, we risk students continuing to pay the price for policy changes.