US 'report card': stagnation in 12th-grade math, reading scores

Commenting on the 2013 NAEP 'report card' for US 12th-graders, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, 'achievement gaps among ethnic groups have not narrowed.'

American high school seniors showed no improvement in their math and reading abilities in four years, according to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often known as the nation’s "report card."

Adding to the discouraging news, achievement gaps between demographic groups have not lessened. And while the 12th-grade math scores are at least slightly higher than they were in 2005 (the earliest scores available for math, due to changes in the test), the reading scores are actually lower than they were in 1992, when the reading score trend line begins.

The news is not all that surprising: While scores have been (mostly) inching up for younger students over the past few decades, gains for high-schoolers – and even for eighth-graders – have been much more elusive.

“Despite the highest high school graduation rate in our history, and despite growth in student achievement over time in elementary school and middle school, student achievement at the high school level has been flat in recent years. Just as troubling, achievement gaps among ethnic groups have not narrowed,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a statement, responding to the NAEP scores.

“We must reject educational stagnation in our high schools, and as nation, we must do better for all students, especially for African-American and Latino students,” he said.

In 2013, 26 percent of America’s 12th-graders scored at or above “proficient” in the math assessment, meaning they can do things like determine the measure of an angle in a three-dimensional figure and evaluate an expression with a fractional exponent. This was a slight improvement from the 24 percent who scored at or above proficient in 2005, but no different from the scores in 2009. Just 3 percent scored at the advanced level.

While most subgroups improved their scores from 2005, there was no change in the achievement gaps between white and black students, white and Hispanic students, or male and female students.

Not surprisingly, NAEP found that students’ performance on the exam was heavily correlated with other factors, such as their parents’ education level and, most notably, the highest-level math course they had taken.

Half of those students who scored in the top quartile had taken calculus, and another 34 percent had taken pre-calculus. Just 3 percent of students scoring in the bottom quartile had taken calculus, and for 58 percent of them, Algebra II or trigonometry was the highest math course they had taken.

While this doesn’t mean that high school seniors should automatically be placed into calculus, it does suggest schools should think about how, starting at a young age, they can provide students with access and opportunity to get into more challenging courses, Dale Nowlin, a 12th-grade math teacher and member of the National Assessment Governing Board, said in a statement.

Mr. Nowlin outlined how his school was able to move from having fewer than 10 percent of its seniors in calculus to having 31 percent take calculus – with impressive scores on the Advanced Placement exams – after a concerted effort that involved introducing 7th-grade algebra and opportunities to take Algebra II and geometry in the same year.

“We need to continue to encourage students to take higher level mathematics classes, and provide access to those classes,” Nowlin said.

In many ways, the 2013 reading scores for 12th-graders were even more discouraging. While the average score of 288 was unchanged from 2009 – and two points higher than in 2005, which represented a nadir for the reading score – it was lower than the average of 292 back in 1992.

A full 25 percent of 12th-graders in 2013 scored below basic, compared with 20 percent in 1992, and just 37 percent scored at or above proficient, compared with 40 percent in 1992. Those scoring at the proficient level could answer questions requiring them to recognize the paraphrase of an idea from a historical speech and the interpretation of a paragraph in such a speech.

Moreover, the achievement gap between white and black students actually widened by five points between 1992 and 2013, to a 30-point gap.

The score for English language learners (ELL) has also fallen significantly since 2005 (they weren’t separated as a group in 1992).

“A very worrisome trend is providing students with a steady dose of low-level texts and not nearly enough reading and talking about texts,” particularly for African-American and special education students, said Susan Pimentel, an education consultant and vice chair of the National Assessment Governing Board, in a statement on the results.

She also expressed concern about low-level “mush” for ELL students to read, and making ELL students learn English before they can attend other classes.

Scoring well on NAEP was strongly correlated with students who reported that reading is “enjoyable,” said they “learn a lot” when they read, and said they regularly discuss what they read in class.

“While the picture presented in this report is troubling, a path forward is in sight,” said Ms. Pimentel, emphasizing the need for teachers to regularly ask students to write and talk about what they read and to cite evidence.

One change that probably has influenced the 12th-grade scores somewhat is the demographic changes of America’s seniors since testing began in 1992, as well as an upward trend in graduation numbers.

The percentage of students who are Hispanic has risen from 7 to 20 percent in that time, and the percentage of students with a disability has doubled, from 5 to 11 percent, while the portion of students who are white has dropped from 74 percent to 58 percent.

At the same time, the average freshman graduation rate has risen from 74 percent to 81 percent, meaning more students who might have dropped out in the past are now included in the sample that are tested.

These figures provide the best representation of the senior class population, says John Easton, director of the Institute of Education Sciences and acting commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics, and should still be compared against one another.

“We don’t explain away test scores based on demographics,” he says. “But it is also useful to keep in mind that we are seeing increases in some subgroups that have traditionally performed lower than some other subgroups. It increases the challenge on us to reach out to these student groups.”

NAEP is most known for its regular assessments of 4th- and 8th-graders, which have provided a regular benchmark of achievement. Its testing of 12th-graders is somewhat different in that it is voluntary, as is participation by individual states for state assessments. Participation by 12th-graders has climbed in recent years, though, and for the 2013 assessment, 75 percent of all students selected for NAEP took the exam. 

Just 11 states opted to participate in NAEP’s state pilot program that began in 2009, with two more states – Michigan and Tennessee – joining the program in 2013. Of the original 11 states, two – Connecticut and Arkansas – showed statistically significant improvement in both their reading and math scores from 2009. West Virginia and Idaho also improved in math.

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