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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.

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NCLB critics point to various NAEP results since 2004 as an indicator of the policy's failure to bring about real improvements and close gaps. Some observers, however, look at the fact that the younger grades have made gains, and they say it's the outcome of a variety of policies, including NCLB, that have emphasized reading and math at those levels.

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NAEP administrators caution against attributing good or bad results to any particular policy, given how many factors affect learning and how much school demographics have changed over the past few decades.

The stagnation of high school scores seems to draw the most concern with the new set of results. "It puts the lie to the idea [that if] you prepare them better in elementary school, they'll just move through the system and be better prepared high-schoolers," says Amy Wilkins, vice president for government affairs at The Education Trust, a Washington nonprofit. "We've got to get better high schools to get better high school outcomes."

The flat math scores among 17-year-olds happened despite the fact that larger percentages have taken higher-level math courses than in previous decades. That raises questions about whether such courses are really offering higher-level curriculum, whether the students bring the necessary math background to be successful, and whether the teaching is effective, Ms. Wilkins and others say.

In considering why 2008 NAEP reading gains weren't as strong as math gains, educational consultant Susan Pimentel says that most state standards have emphasized reading strategies but not high-level reading content.

"In talking to countless employers and postsecondary faculty from across the nation, they tell us they don't want students to just be able to summarize, analyze, identify, and locate [information in a text]; they want students to be able to [do so] in particular types of rigorous texts ... [such as] scientific journals, memos from employers, rich fiction, and biography," Ms. Pimentel said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. She is a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, the independent bipartisan group that sets NAEP policy.

"Too few of our students are being challenged with rich, complex texts as we move up in the age groups," Pimentel added.

The new NAEP study is titled "The Nation's Report Card: NAEP 2008 Trends in Academic Progress." This kind of NAEP test was last administered in 2004.

The results can't be directly compared with a separate set of NAEP tests, which take a snapshot of various subjects every few years and change over time with curriculum.