U.S. 12th-graders make small gains on national assessment

Today, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released the results of the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in mathematics and reading for our nation’s 12th graders.  While the nation as a whole has seen significant improvements at the 4th and 8th grade levels, the same improvement has yet to show up at the end of high school. In neither math nor reading did scores significantly change from 2009—the last time 12th grade NAEP was administered. However, scores in math are higher than they were in 2005—the furthest back math scores can be compared. On the other hand, reading scores have remained relatively unchanged over the past decade and were slightly lower than in 1992—the first year the reading assessment was administered.

It is important to keep in mind that results for our 12th graders are dependent on how many students remained in school. Unlike at 4th and 8th grades where students are required to be in school, at the 12th grade level most students have the option of dropping out. When our high schools retain a larger proportion of students it could impact the results. This indeed may be the case as it was reported last week that our national graduation rate is at an all-time high of 80 percent– with a significant improvement since 2006. So it is possible that scores would have been higher if graduation rates remained near 70 percent as they were for most of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Yet, higher graduation rates can’t fully explain why scores at the 12th grade have basically flat-lined while they have accelerated in earlier grades because scores have not changed much for most student groups. The exception is math where Black, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander students made significant gains from 2005 to 2013 (5, 7, and 10 points respectively) although none of that increase is due to any improvements since 2009. Most scores were relatively unchanged no matter if groups were defined by parent’s highest education level, male or female, or high or low-performer.

What is clear is that those students who took more rigorous courses achieved the highest scores. Those students who took Calculus scored the equivalent to nearly 4 more years worth of learning than students whose highest math course was Algebra II or Trigonometry and nearly 7 more years worth of learning than those students who never completed a course beyond Algebra I. In reading, those students who say they discuss reading interpretations nearly every day achieve the equivalent to nearly two years worth of learning over students who rarely discuss reading interpretations.

Last week’s news about our historic graduation rate is certainly worth celebrating. Schools have also made strides at enrolling more students in high-level courses. But today’s NAEP results show that much more work still needs to be done. Simply earning a high school diploma is not enough. Students need to succeed in rigorous courses in high school to gain the knowledge and skills needed for the 21st century labor market.— Jim Hull


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