Federal Test Shows U.S. 12th-Graders Aren't Improving in Reading or Math

Caroline Porter | The Wall Street Journal
05/07/14

 Despite years of efforts to lift U.S. academic performance, 12th-graders showed no improvement in math or reading in federal test scores released Wednesday, underscoring concerns that the country isn't generating career- and college-ready graduates.

Students' 2013 performance in the National Assessment of Educational Progress didn't budge since the prior one in 2009. About 38% of students scored proficient or higher in reading, while about 26% did so in math—matching the 2009 results. A majority of students received marks of below basic or basic for both subjects in both years.

"This report is similar to previous reports in that there is nothing stellar about it," said Cornelia Orr, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, created by Congress in 1988 to set and measure national benchmarks for student performance. "Too few students are achieving at a level to make our country competitive at an international level."

Lower expectations for what graduates should study and know are part of the problem, Ms. Orr said. Meanwhile, more students are staying in school: The graduation rate was about 81% in the 2011-12 school year, up from 74% in 1991-92, according to the Department of Education.

"Students get a mixed message—students have a low bar to graduate from high school but it's not a high enough bar to really pursue a career actively when they leave," she said.

Other tests reflect unprepared graduates as well. SAT scores for the graduating class of 2013 were flat from the prior year, with 43% of students deemed prepared for college-level classwork, according to the College Board, which administers the test. At the international level, results announced last year from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment show American teenagers slipping in world rankings in math, science and reading.

About 92,000 12th-graders took the test, which was administered during the first quarter of 2013.

The latest 12th-grader test scores showed ethnic and gender gaps remain, with non-Hispanic white students outperforming blacks and Hispanics in both reading and math. Some experts point to a demographic shift as an influence on the average scores. Among the test takers, the percentage of Hispanic students rose to 20% in 2013 from 7% in 1992, while the share of white ones fell to 58% from 74%.

The results showed females excelled in reading, while males earned higher scores in math.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncansaid test scores have been improving in lower grades, but high-school results were troubling, even as graduation rates have risen. "We must reject educational stagnation in our high schools, and as a nation, we must do better for all students, especially for African-American and Latino students," he said in a statement.

"I wanted to be surprised and I wasn't," said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a policy and advocacy nonprofit focused on readying high-school graduates for work or college. He said the results don't fully reflect higher standards implemented in recent years—for instance the Common Core, which has been adopted by more than 40 states.

"We're in the midst of a very epic change in this country," Mr. Wise said. "We raised standards and realize that all students need to graduate to be college- or career-ready in some form, but we're not there yet. We raised the bar but haven't put in all the steps yet for all our students to be able to clear it."

The report did highlight that more-advanced course work goes hand in hand with higher test scores. Students who discussed their interpretations of readings more frequently and those who took higher-level math courses, such as precalculus and calculus, tested better than average.

Michael Nellums, principal of Pine Bluff High School in Pine Bluff, Ark., said his school has added in-class tutors for both math and reading this year and implemented a program to identify struggling 10th- and 11th-grade students. It added a "geometry cafe" that offers students after-school preparation for final exams.

Arkansas, which volunteered to sample more students, improved scores in both math and reading in 2013 from 2009, federal data show. "We've put a focus on adequate literacy skills, and we are making a noticeable improvement there," Mr. Nellums said. "With math we're going back through an assessment phase and doing a root-cause analysis of why we were at where we were."

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