Commentary | Education

Lessons—Add Social Changes to the Factors Affecting Declining Test Scores

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON OCTOBER 25, 2000]

Add Social Changes to the Factors Affecting Declining Test Scores

By Richard Rothstein

Educators are under pressure to jump-start performance, and every politician has a favored panacea. But solutions are elusive because the roles of spending, curriculum, leadership and home environment are so intertwined.

Iowa offers an unusual chance to appreciate this. The state can be seen as a laboratory for the nation because it alone has long-term academic data. Unlike other states and cities that seem to switch tests with each passing fad, Iowa has used a single assessment, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, since 1935. When test changes are needed, consistent scoring is preserved by giving some students both current and previous exams and then equating the results.

So the state has a unique opportunity to see how student performance has changed. With this solid bank of historical data, Iowa policy makers are less prone to offer glib explanations and more willing to acknowledge how complex the trends can be.

The Iowa Test covers verbal, math, science, social studies, reasoning and research skills of third- through eighth-grade students. Scores improved dramatically from 1940 to about 1965, then fell until the mid-1970′s, and then rose until about 1990, when they were higher than ever. While we can’t be certain, this probably reflects national trends.

But since 1990, Iowa scores have declined.

H. D. Hoover, the University of Iowa psychometrician who develops the test, wondered if the decline might stem partly from less phonics instruction. But Professor Hoover notes that this can’t fully explain why scores also fell in math computation, concepts and estimation, or in interpreting maps and diagrams.

Ted Stilwill, director of the Iowa Department of Education, suspected that even if the whole-language approach was popular in education schools, teachers might not have followed it. Surveying the state, Mr. Stilwill found some evidence that in the last five years, when reading scores fell, more teachers had abandoned whole-language methods than phonics.

Mr. Stilwill thinks demography may be playing a role. Iowa once had few low-income minority pupils. Now, Hispanic immigrants work in packinghouses and service jobs. They are often less literate, even in Spanish, than traditional Iowa parents. If immigrant children start school with less literacy, they may have lower scores, even if schools are just as effective.

But Professor Hoover cautions that immigration’s impact on scores is murky, because school policies vary on whether Spanish-speaking pupils take the test. If many don’t, this can’t be responsible for a drop in average scores.

Mr. Stilwill speculates that even greater social change may be a factor. He notes that 83 percent of Iowa children now come from homes where both parents work (or from single-parent homes, where that parent works). Nationwide, the figure is 66 percent; in New York, 59 percent.

With parents less available, children may get less support at home for learning, Mr. Stilwill surmises. Students are then more emotionally needy in school, with fewer social experiences that aid cognitive development.

Karen Hoffmeier has taught kindergarten for 18 years in Newton, Iowa, where the main employer is a Maytag appliance factory. Ms. Hoffmeier’s pupils are mostly from middle-class, blue-collar families that have lived in Newton for decades. But, she says, having parents with so many obligations has palpable effects on learning. This year, in her class of 23, there are only three mothers she can phone at home if a problem arises during school.

Parents are so stressed, she said, “I can even see changes at the grocery store. Mothers no longer take time to explain to toddlers, `Let’s get these vegetables for supper.’ Instead, you hear `get down, wait,’ and so on. You can’t measure this – children seem to have the same motor skills. But their support from parents is suffering.”

Many of Ms. Hoffmeier’s pupils were in day care centers before entering school. She finds that some centers provide adequate stimulation and nurturing, but not all do. “Within 48 hours of working with my kindergartners,” she said, “I can pretty much tell which center they were in.”

If Ms. Hoffmeier’s suspicion is correct, Iowa could err if it reacts to score declines with radical changes in school curriculum or structure. Instead, it should focus on day care and preschool quality. Iowa’s governor, Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, has vowed to begin emphasizing early childhood programs. Nationally, this is becoming a priority for the poor, but it may be equally important for all working families.

In the end, however, Governor Vilsack, Mr. Stilwill, and Professor Hoover can’t fully explain the trends. They are adopting sensible reforms like those elsewhere – more accountability, attention to teacher quality and professional development. But easy ways to raise achievement don’t exist in an enterprise this complex. And they admit it.

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