High-schoolers have made little progress since the 1970s, study says
Younger students have made some encouraging gains in math, but the lack of improvement among older students raises questions about recent education reforms.
American 17-year-olds aren't performing any better in reading and math than their bell-bottom-clad counterparts in the early 1970s. That's one conclusion from the latest round of a national test tracking long-term educational trends.Skip to next paragraph
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On the positive side, the test shows that younger students – 9- and 13-year-olds – are making significant gains. In addition, racial differences in scores have narrowed for all three age groups over the past 30-plus years.
But overall, the mixed results parallel other indicators of how challenging it is to raise academic achievement.
The flat-line trend for 17-year-olds should sound an alarm, say advocates of high school reform. "If high schools were cellphones, they'd be considered in a dead zone," says Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington advocacy group. "We've got to finally start addressing high schools in the same way that we addressed elementary schools.... This is the jumping-off place for college or the modern workplace, and our kids unfortunately are performing at [1970s] levels."
More than 26,000 students took the tests for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – a project overseen by the research wing of the US Department of Education. The results were released Tuesday. As part of the NAEP project, reading scores have been tracked since 1971 and math since 1973.
In the new report, long-term improvements were largest for younger age groups in math. Nine-year-olds gained 24 points since 1973, and 13-year-olds gained 15 points. In reading, the gains were 12 points and 4 points respectively since 1971. That's on a 500-point scale, which NAEP breaks into 50-point intervals to describe the corresponding skill level.
African-American and Hispanic students have improved at greater rates than white students since the 1970s, but since 2004, they've made little progress in narrowing these so-called achievement gaps. In 2008, for instance, the average reading score for white 9-year-olds was 228 – 24 points ahead of African-Americans and 21 points ahead of Hispanics.
The report card comes at a time when discussion is building in policy circles about whether there should be national education standards – or whether the multiple standards used by states under the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) should be benchmarked to something common, such as NAEP.
"State tests are in many ways useless for making any kind of state-to-state comparison," says Frederick Hess, director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "Whatever one thinks of national standards, it's imperative that we find a way to use NAEP as a backstop to let parents and voters know how to interpret state assessments."