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Why Johnny (still) can't multiply: Experts weigh in

Amid debate over new policy and efforts to improve education, math scores have fallen on the 'nation's report card' for the first time in 25 years. 

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Students at a summer reading academy at Buchanan Elementary School in Oklahoma City work in their computer lab. Curriculum reforms are on the hot seat after the NAEP showed that test scores in math have declined nationwide.

Sue Ogrocki/AP/File

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You don't need a math expert to know this doesn't add up: despite every effort, the math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress fell overall for the first time in years.

Some blame the test, especially in light of President Obama's statement Saturday that too much testing occurs in schools, but most experts agree that the NAEP is a good one. Math scores on this test have not dropped in 25 years, and a random sampling of fourth- and eighth-grade students take the short test without any chance for prep or stress, which has given the NAEP a reputation as "the nation's report card," USA Today reported.

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It may be too soon to worry. "One downturn does not a trend make," said Peggy Carr, the federal official in charge of the tests, to USA Today

Still, experts and educators are puzzled by the nationwide drop in math scores, taken by some as a sign that enormous education reform efforts have borne no fruit.

The scores, which divide students into quadrants of below basic, basic, proficient, and advanced, have been improving steadily since 1990. Wednesday's announced results bring test levels back to 2007. 

Blame the economy, writes Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute for education. "Let’s be clear: The American family has gotten hammered in recent years," he says.

He notes that the median income for American families with children has dropped 6 percent since 2006, and that the nation's top scorers – Washington, D.C. and Mississippi – have been spared the worst of the economic downturn.

"It makes sense," writes Mr. Petrilli. "When families are hurting financially, it’s harder for students to focus on learning."

Others blame Common Core, the new standards for math and reading that have been adopted by most states.

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"Today’s National Assessment of Educational Progress score flop should come as no surprise. You cannot implement terrible education policies and expect that achievement will increase," writes Carol Burris, a just-retired New York high school principal and head of the nonprofit Network for Public Education, in the Washington Post.

"Although NAEP and the SAT were not designed to align to the Common Core, they measure what the Common Core Standards were supposed to improve—the literacy and numeracy of our nation’s students. Considering the billions of dollars spent on these reforms, one would expect at least some payoff by now," writes Ms. Burris.

When the last round of NAEP scores came out in 2013, Education Secretary Arne Duncan pointed out that the eight states that had already implemented Common Core saw test scores rise. The nationwide drop, in the wake of Common Core's broader implementation, challenges that narrative.

"Big change never happens overnight," Secretary Duncan told the Washington Post. "I’m confident that over the next decade, if we stay committed to this change, we will see historic improvements."

That commitment is exactly what is lacking, argues Daniela Farr on a blog for RI Can, an education advocacy organization in Rhode Island.

American education needs a Sputnik, she says, a catalyzing event that will enable different factions in America to find a solution together.