WSJ Columnist Confused About School Improvement Grants vs State Standards


Wall Street Journal columnist Tawnell Hobbs, erroneously conflates cherry-picked state assessment data with a federal grant program to press the case that U.S. Secretary of Education-designee Betsy DeVos could use “reading and math scores [that] were essentially flat” over the last few years to “push her ideas for education.”

The article notes that schools have been “improving graduation rates” but stalling out on increasing test scores, despite reforms targeted at “the worst-performing schools.” The article refers to a federal report on School Improvement Grants issued between 2010 and 2013 that found the program “had no significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment.”

However, School Improvement Grants (SIG) are not a set of learning goals; they provide funds for low-performing schools to develop intervention strategies. These are two entirely different things, as any educator will tell you.

Unfortunately, that memo seems to have skipped the Journal’s newsroom, which makes apples to oranges comparisons. SIG programs focus on improving community engagement, expanding learning time, converting schools into charters, and improving the quality of the teaching corps.

Calling the gains made over the last few years “stagnant” is wrong, and harmful to efforts to improve educational outcomes. Prior to 2010, the vast majority of states had inferior academic standards that were not adequately preparing students for the challenges beyond high school.

Too many “top-performing students” found themselves in need of remedial coursework in college or unable to jumpstart a career because they lacked the right skills or an ability to think critically. Higher academic standards shifted the landscape, and aligned assessments, which came about a few years later, showed, for the first time, where the achievement gaps were for students.

Though there is still much work to be done, staying the course with higher academic standards is moving test scores in the right direction. Here are some examples from a memo from the Collaborative for Student Success:

Colorado: Results from the Colorado Measures of Academic Success test (which features PARCC for ELA and math) showed that students in grades 3-5 improved in math over the previous year. While there is still much work to be done in closing achievement gaps, both Hispanic and black students in five grades narrowed their gap with white subgroups. (Denver Post, 9/16/16)

District of Columbia: The District of Columbia public and charter school systems showed improvement in math and ELA in its second year of using PARCC testing. Math was a particular bright spot with scores for third-graders rising an average of seven percentage points since 2015. (WTOP, 8/30/2016 &, 9/02/16)

Maryland: Maryland students made improvements on the state’s PARCC assessments in math, and scores remained steady in ELA compared to last year. The biggest gains were made in math by third-grade students, whose entire educational experience has been with the Common Core. While the average math increase was roughly 7.5 percent, Native American students gained nearly 10 percentage points (9.9), white students gained 8.6 percentage points, Hispanic students gained nearly eight (7.8) and black students nearly 7 (6.9). (The Washington Post, 8/24/16)

Michigan: The second year of administering the M-STEP test showed the largest increases in performance for ELA coming in fifth and eighth grades. In math, gains were seen in fourth and seventh grades. (, 8/30/16)