The emphasis on holding accountable for student achievement was waxed and waned ever since Horace Mann brought the Prussian system of education to America. Arguably, though, it entered a new phase of statistical rigor and public scrutiny in the early 2000s with President Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation. While some argue strongly against such measures, as harmful to the classroom environment and instructional content, the fact remains that student achievement, as quantified and distilled through state and national testing, still holds a premier focus of schooling.

Such accountability exists through a three-legged stool. The first leg is the perception of parents of the education of their own child. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that this view vastly outweighs any other measure with parents, though this perception can only ever be anecdotal. The second leg is state testing, in South Dakota through Smarter Balanced Assessments. The third is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

The third one is widely ignored by parents and educators alike because no reports on the NAEP exist for individual students, schools or districts. If you never hear back about how you scored, who cares? This actually erodes a bit of the validity of the NAEP because without any skin in the game, some students will, using the ironclad logic of self-interest, not try particularly hard.

Nevertheless, the NAEP is a very important third leg. Each state must produce an assessment of its students in reading and mathematics. Then it must set certain benchmark scores on those assessments which determine whether a student is identified as below basic, basic, proficient or advanced. The benchmark scores are determined, typically by panels of educators who use expertise to suggest just how much learning a student must demonstrate in order to be appropriately identified as such. But notice there is no magic, self-evident indicator of what score equals what achievement category. Because the state testing is somewhat high-stakes, states have an incentive to set the benchmarks a bit lower than they might otherwise, if such determinations were based only on expertise. (See Campbell’s Law).

Thus, in the theoretical “race to the bottom,” states could evade a certain level of accountability by simply setting low benchmarks. To prevent that, or at least give the public a point of comparison, a subset of students in the fourth and eighth grade in all states are required to take the NAEP exam. If state results are wildly out of sync with (i.e. lower than) national results, it would be possible to point an accusatory finger. Not surprisingly, NAEP student achievement scores are, pretty much across the board, lower than would be expected from state results.

More surprisingly, this year’s 2019 NAEP report results showed a significant drip, particularly in reading. Compared to 2017, reading scores dropped one point for fourth-graders and three points for eighth-graders. If that sounds small, remember this is a national assessment with 600,000 students involved and so any change upward or downward is probably meaningful.

To add to the misery, the gap between high performers and low performers grew. This means, statistically, that students in poverty, in certain ethnicities, from non-English-speaking homes, and/or with disabilities slumped further than the overall group. Virtually the only silver lining — the ability of lower performers to catch up a bit when the average slides — has been stripped from the dark cloud.

So what is to be done? Ask 10 educators and educational theorists and you will get 11 opinions.

Here’s mine. Look at the reading research. Now, much of educational research is hopelessly subjective, non-causal and beset with biases from various advocacy groups, but if there is one body of research that is genuinely compelling, it is in the area of teaching reading.

That research concludes time and again that if you want children to learn to read well, use rigorous systematic phonics. Not forever of course. A senior high English class in which students were studying the sounds “A” makes would be ludicrous. But every student should be provided a full slate of phonics lessons over a lengthy period of time and only released from such when they have gained full proficiency or in, a tiny, tiny minority of cases, teams of educators have determined that further instruction will not be productive.

It is a seemingly simple solution. It is also a correct one. Just ask the thousands of educational researchers who have reached the identical conclusion over the last more-than-half-century. What is less simple, admittedly, is ensuring that such instruction is provided to every child in a loosely coupled educational system of national, state, district, school and classroom levels of authority.

There is research on that as well, but alas, it is far less dispositive.