The good news behind America's bad test scores

The findings released Wednesday by the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that fewer high school seniors were ready for college than in 2013. But some education experts say the numbers don't tell the whole story.

Edyta Blaszczyk/Odessa American/AP/File
It’s not a promising picture for the nation’s high school seniors: They are slipping in math, not making strides in reading, and only about one-third are prepared for the academic challenges of entry-level college courses, according to scores released April 27 from the so-called Nation’s Report Card. Above, Odessa High School graduates pose for a group portrait prior to the start of the commencement ceremony in Texas in 2014.

American schools just got their biennial report card, and the results aren't exactly worthy of the honor roll. Fewer than half of America's high school seniors are prepared for college – even fewer than in 2013.

The gap between the strongest and weakest performing 12th-graders in math widened in the past two years, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often called "the nation's report card." It also showed that students in the lowest percentiles (25th and 10th) for math and reading performed worse in 2015 than in 2013. Those in upper percentiles (75th and 90th) remained steady or improved their scores. It also showed that more students had fallen below the scorecard’s lowest “basic,” category in both those subjects.

On the surface the findings released Wednesday might look grim, with some experts saying the figures prove that the standardized testing espoused by federal programs like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and President Obama’s Common Core is failing. While the numbers present a steep challenge, some education experts see opportunities to close the gap.

High school dropout rates have dramatically decreased in recent years – by 27 percent since 2008. This in itself is progress, some experts say, with hundreds of thousands of students who would never have gotten their diploma in the past now doing so. Research shows these new graduates come from traditionally underserved groups – low-income, students of color, or English Language Learners – and are thus likely to weigh on national averages. However, instead of seeing these students as a burden, some instead suggest there are concrete measures that can be taken to ensure more finish strongly enough to go onto college.

“As the nation rightly celebrates increased graduation rates for all groups of young people, these results signal how much work we have yet to do to assure that all young people don’t just have a diploma, but are actually prepared for the goals that they overwhelmingly say they have for themselves and that their parents have for them. And that is to go to college and earn a degree,” says Daria Hall, interim vice president for government affairs and communications at the Education Trust in Washington.

Indeed, as high-school graduation rates increase, the actual value of diplomas is coming under closer scrutiny. College and workplace “preparedness” metrics are becoming somewhat of a gold standard among policy makers and advocates. At the same time, some education experts remain skeptical about the amount of weight given to such measures.

In late 2015, President Obama signed the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act into law, which replaced the controversial No Child Left Behind law. It “had the clear goal of fully preparing all students for success in college and careers,” the administration said. Furthermore, in 2013 NAEP included a “college readiness” indicator for the first time. In 2015, the percentage of students meeting this benchmark fell for both math and reading against 2013 figures. Math dropped to 37 percent from 39 percent and reading to 37 percent from 38 percent.

“This just shows that high-schools are too often treating graduation as the end-goal for low-income kids and kids of color, rather than ensuring that they have in place learning opportunities that will truly prepare them for college and the workplace,” Ms. Hall says.

The NAEP results were taken from a nationwide sample of combined 31,900 students in the math and reading tests. The overall gap between different ethnic categories – Asian/Pacific Islander, White/Two or more races, Latino or American Indian/Alaska Native, Black – did not change significantly between 2013 and 2015.

Experts particularly highlighted the difference in overall test performance between those students that took math and those who did not; the latter performed worse.

Furthermore, even among those students who took math, the ethnic gap was pronounced. Eleven percent of low-income 12th-graders scored at the “proficient” level, compared with 32 percent of higher income students. Fewer than 10 percent of black and Native American students scored “proficient” in math, compared with 30 percent of white students. "Proficient" means students have mastery over challenging material.

Peggy Carr, the acting commissioner for the National Center for Educational Statistics, and US Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., both pointed to math figures saying it showed the need for better systems to ensure that more students in the lower percentiles were challenged to excel rather than just ticking the graduation box.

“The data show us some opportunities where we can make a difference, Secretary King said in a statement following the release of the NAEP data. “For example, 12th-graders who took math classes their senior year did significantly better on NAEP than those who did not, which indicates how important it is that schools continue to expand opportunities – particularly for historically underserved students – to take advanced coursework.”

To do this, Hall says there are a number of concrete steps that schools, districts and states should take to begin to reel in the deficit:

  • Academic counselors often discourage underperforming students from taking on the more advanced classes. If this were reversed, and adequate resources provided to help them, this would increase the real-world value of their high-school diplomas.
  • The actual quality of assignments in classrooms must be of a high standard and linked to rigorous standards of assessment.
  • Districts should provide incentives and compensation as a way of attracting and retaining the best talent to the highest need schools. The Education Trust says it is a common practice for businesses to send its best talent to a struggling branch of a company and that the same should be done in public education.
  • States should have strong accountability systems in place so that when a school is struggling it triggers a coordinated effort to aid it.

One significant impediment toward implementing such measures is funding, according to William Mathis, the managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

He says since the great recession from 2007 to 2009, after which funding levels basically flatlined, states have been squeezed to conduct the national testing to prove they qualify for funds and in turn improve schools.

And some experts believe the weight placed on NAEP results and so-called “preparedness” metrics is highly subjective.

“ 'College and career ready' – no one knows what that means. Knowing what it means is open to interpretation,” says Professor Mathis.

The strongest indicator of student success in school is parents’ socioeconomic status, Mathis says, which is strongly correlated with level of their education. The NAEP data show students with parents who didn't finish high school performed the worst.

He underscores the fact that a dramatic shift in the makeup of America’s student population means traditionally underperforming student groups cannot be ignored by the education system.

“For the first time in nation’s history we have a majority of minorities,” he says.

Hall acknowledges the educational inequity between groups, but sees a way forward.

“The good news is schools have an opportunity to interrupt that.”

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