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Bill Gates needs to get his facts straight on test scores

I came across an article that I had saved on the NAEP (pronounced “nape”) test results over the last 12 years and Bill Gates pronouncement that our school system is a failure based on his perception that students have not shown any academic gains over the last 40 years.

Au contraire Mr. Gates, not according to the NAEP test.

Mr. Richard Rothstein with the Economic Policy Institute states in a report last year titled Fact Challenged Policy:

The only longitudinal measure of student achievement that is available to Bill Gates or anyone else is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). NAEP provides trends for 4th, 8th, and 12th graders, disaggregated by race, ethnicity, and poverty, since about 1980 in basic skills in math and reading (called the “Long Term Trend NAEP”) and since about 1990 for 4th and 8th graders in slightly more sophisticated math and reading skills (called the “Main NAEP”).[*]

On these exams, American students have improved substantially, in some cases phenomenally. In general, the improvements have been greatest for African-American students, and among these, for the most disadvantaged. The improvements have been greatest for both black and white 4th and 8th graders in math. Improvements have been less great but still substantial for black 4th and 8th graders in reading and for black 12th graders in both math and reading. Improvements have been modest for whites in 12th grade math and at all three grade levels in reading.

The following table summarizes these results, for the earliest and most recent years for  which disaggregated data were collected.

We can see that in 4th grade math, black students now have higher average achievement than white students had when the assessments began. Average black students’ gains have been a full standard deviation, a rate of progress that would be considered extraordinary in any area of social policy. The black-white score gap has narrowed some, but not very much, because white students have also shown improvement.

Bill Gates may think that these improvements are insufficient, and perhaps he is correct. But, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan reportedly quipped, “everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.” No rational reading of these NAEP data can support Bill Gates’ claim that “student achievement has remained virtually flat” over the last four decades.[†] And, to repeat, no other longitudinal data are available that describe student achievement over time.

These facts also don’t support the story that the typical teacher of disadvantaged children is ineffective. Certainly, some teachers are ineffective, and schools should do a better job of removing them. But that should not, if facts are to be believed, be the main story.

Yet it seems to be. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently asserted that “many, if not most, teacher-training programs are mediocre.” This may be true, but how does he know? What is his evidence? It wouldn’t seem that mediocre teacher training programs could consistently be turning out teachers who have posted the kinds of gains we’ve seen on NAEP in the last generation and more.

Mr. Rothchild continues:

Bill Gates says: “The per-student cost of running our K-12 schools has more than doubled.”

Here, Bill Gates is nominally correct, but misleading. When properly adjusted for inflation, K-12 per pupil spending has about doubled over the last four decades, but less than half of this new money has gone to regular education (including compensatory education for disadvantaged children, programs for English-language learners, integration programs like magnet schools, and special schools for dropout recovery and prevention). The biggest single recipient of new money has been special education for children with disabilities. Four decades ago, special education consumed less than 4% of all K-12 spending. It now consumes 21%.[‡]

Detailed tables documenting these trends are available here.

American public education can boast of remarkable accomplishments in special education over this period. Many young people can now function in society whereas, in the past, children with similar disabilities were institutionalized and discarded.

To read more on how Bill Gates needs to get his facts straight before telling us what’s best for the rest of us, our children and our schools, go to: Fact Challenged Policy.


4 comments on “Bill Gates needs to get his facts straight on test scores

  1. jack whelan
    August 18, 2012

    The narrative that our schools are a disaster that need the free market to save them is a classic ‘shock doctrine’ tactic. It’s essential for corporate reformers to create a public perception that the schools are much worse than they are so that the media shapes broad public perception that they need radical interventions like those proposed by Gates, et al–charters, TFA, MicroSoft style performance evaluations.

    BTW, check out this Vanity Fair piece on the impact of the last of those, ‘stack ranking’, on the folks over in Redmond:

    Eichenwald’s conversations reveal that a management system known as “stack ranking”—a program that forces every unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, good performers, average, and poor—effectively crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate. “Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees,” Eichenwald writes. “If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, 2 people were going to get a great review, 7 were going to get mediocre reviews, and 1 was going to get a terrible review,” says a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

    When Eichenwald asks Brian Cody, a former Microsoft engineer, whether a review of him was ever based on the quality of his work, Cody says, “It was always much less about how I could become a better engineer and much more about my need to improve my visibility among other managers.” Ed McCahill, who worked at Microsoft as a marketing manager for 16 years, says, “You look at the Windows Phone and you can’t help but wonder, How did Microsoft squander the lead they had with the Windows CE devices? They had a great lead, they were years ahead. And they completely blew it. And they completely blew it because of the bureaucracy.”


    I feel the same way about the curve in grading my students at the UW, and I won’t use one. If I’m doing my job, and my students are doing theirs, why shouldn’t they all deserve good grades. Having rigorous or high standards doesn’t require a curve.

  2. James Boutin
    August 1, 2012

    Too bad most people won’t ever know the reality.

    • seattleducation2011
      August 4, 2012

      The way that I view it is that I focus on my community, school district and my state. If I can get the word out to enough people within that circle to influence the debate, I feel that I have done my job.

      If others are listening, even better.


  3. David Fisher
    August 1, 2012

    Another excellent bit of research Dora, thank you.

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This entry was posted on August 1, 2012 by in Bill Gates / Gates Foundation and tagged , , .
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