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The Obama administration is announcing major progress this week as its signature education policy, the Race to the Top competition, winds down and the money runs out.

Many states that won a federal grant in the $4 billion program that is now entering its fourth year have followed through on promises to adopt the Common Core State Standards and launch new teacher evaluations along with an assortment of other policies, including opening new charter schools, training teachers, and offering more Advanced Placement classes. Others are still working on it.

Did Race to the Top work?
President Barack Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan (Photo by Obama-Biden Transition Project)

So is Race to the Top a win? Or is it too soon to tell? (And is the data too messy to provide an answer?) A White House report released Tuesday points to rising graduation rates and rising scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) as evidence:

“At 80 percent, the nation’s high school graduation rate is the highest in American history, thanks to comprehensive, state-led efforts inspired in part by Race to the Top. In addition, student test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress are the highest since the test was first given 20 years ago.”

Education data is full of variables that bedevil reformers hoping to claim their ideas work, however. Thus the heated debates over charter schools, small class sizes, desegregation, school closings and other controversial strategies meant to improve student performance. In the case of charter schools, for example, critics ask if it’s really the charters that cause students to improve their performance, or other factors — like more involved parents. It’s often hard to tell.

On a conference call with reporters today, one of the first questions put to Cecilia Muñoz, Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan was whether it was really fair to claim Race to the Top was behind the rising test scores and declining number of dropouts nationally. (Another report out this week also argues the grant competition worked, based partly on the fact that low-achieving schools in many Race to the Top states are making significant gains.)

The Washington Post reporter who asked the question pointed out that the NAEP increases have been small and incremental, and expert opinion that a rise in graduation rates is probably more connected to a weak economy and fears among potential dropouts that they won’t find work without a diploma.

“The point is that by holding students, schools and the whole system accountable, we’re seeing progress” in the Race to the Top states, Muñoz responded.

Duncan was more direct:

“We’re not satisfied, but we’re absolutely pleased that graduation rates are at an all time high. We think [Race to the Top] resources and opportunities contributed to that,” he said, adding that “the real credit should go to teachers and principals … and to students who are working really, really hard.”

(This post has been updated from an earlier version.)

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