12th graders’ math scores drop, reading flatlines

And just when we had allowed ourselves to get giddy over record-shattering high school graduation rates.

NAEP, also known as the Nation’s Report card, released the results of its 2015 assessment of high school seniors’ math and reading proficiency. Like their 4th and 8th grade schoolmates, whose 2015 scores were published last fall, the nation’s 12th-graders either made no progress or dropped a few points, especially in mathematics. Worse, scores for the lowest performers fell the most in both subjects.

Let’s start with reading. The overall score was 1 point lower on the NAEP scale from two years ago, which is not a statistically significant change. However, 12th graders are performing 5 points lower compared to their peers in 1992, the first year the main-NAEP reading assessment was administered.

There was no noticeable change since 2013 in the scores of any racial/ethnic group, or in the achievement gaps between them.

Indeed, the biggest change was at the bottom. In just the last two years, the proportion of students who did not even read at the basic level grew, from 25 to 28 percent.  What this means in more tangible terms is that this group of soon-to-be-graduates cannot recognize the main purpose of expository text; cannot recognize the main purpose of an argument; and cannot explain a character’s action from a story description.

The math picture isn’t any rosier. The overall math score fell a significant 3 points on the NAEP scale. While this is still 2 points higher than in 2005 – the first administration of the test’s new math framework – it does represent a reversal after years of steady gains. As with reading, the math scores were relatively flat for every racial/ethnic group compared to 2013. One happy exception: scores for English language learners rose by 4 points.

Math also saw an increase of the wrong kind. A whopping 38 percent of high school seniors did not perform at the basic level in 2015, an increase of 3 points over 2013. This is troubling on its own merits. It is truly baffling when considering that 90 percent of seniors reported having taken Algebra II or a higher math course in high school.  We should see this group of low performers shrinking, not growing larger.

Of high interest to education policymakers and parents is the degree to which 12th graders are prepared for college work. Beginning in 2008, the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP, commissioned several studies linking NAEP performance levels to college readiness. Based on the analysis, just slightly more than a third of seniors in 2015 scored at a level showing they had the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in freshmen courses. But ready or not, two-thirds of them will be bound for two- and four-year colleges the October following graduation.

Why is this happening? Many advocates have been quick to point to policies like Common Core, too much testing, not enough testing, or whatever other bee sticks in their bonnets. But as I have written elsewhere, there is not enough information at this point to lay the blame on any one of these, although they surely warrant watching. Likewise, some observers have noted the increase in childhood poverty, which also deserves attention.

I think another explanation might be found in one of our great successes. High school graduation rates have exploded in just the last 10 years. In 2013, 81 percent of all high school students graduated within four years. We know from research that failing grades are high risk factors for students. Up until recently, these low performers would have dropped out before showing up in the NAEP data as seniors. The fact that they are still in school is a good thing, but it may also be dragging 12th grade scores down.

The truth is, it’s too soon for us to know for sure why this happened. But there are enough questions that schools should be examining to get us back on the right track.

  • Do the high-level courses students are taking in larger numbers actually represent high-level content?
  • Do schools have enough counselors and other trained professionals to not just make sure students stay in school, but have the support they need to perform academically?
  • Are teachers also supported as they implement higher standards in their classrooms?
  • Finally, are federal, state and local policymakers providing the resources high schools need to assure every student graduates ready to succeed in college, careers and life?

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