NAEP Puzzle: Why Does Academic Progress “Hit The Wall” in High School?

On May 7, 2014, the U.S. Department of Education released the results of the most recent assessment of the reading and math skills of America’s high school seniors. Depressing reading.

The bottom line is that America’s high school seniors are not doing at all well. This distressingly low level of performance has not changed in the last four years (and probably for far longer than that).

This stagnation persists despite significant improvement in the achievement levels of America’s fourth and eighth graders. Somehow our high schools took students whose skills improved greatly in elementary and middle school and wrung these improvements out of them. The disconnect between the growing skills of our younger students and the stagnation of the test scores of our high school seniors is a continuing puzzle.

We can see this disconnect by comparing the growth in scores in reading and math for fourth and eighth graders with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results reported on May 7. Since 1990, the math scores of fourth graders went up by 28 points. (As a rule of thumb, 10 points on NAEP is equal to about one year of learning, so today’s fourth grade students are, on average, about three years ahead of where they were in 1990.) Eighth-grade math scores are up by 22 points since 1990. Reading scores have gone up too, but nowhere near as much as math scores (scores are up 5 points since 1992 for fourth grade and 8 points for eighth grade).

In contrast, 12th- grade reading scores fell 4 points since 1992. It is not possible to create a long-term comparison  for math using the exam results released on May 7, but another NAEP exam (Long Term Trends) reports that math scores for 17-year-old students have remained flat since 1973 (while the scores of 9- and 13-year-old students have skyrocketed).

On April 28, 2014, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan exalted in the growing high school graduation rates across the nation. These NAEP scores call that celebration into question. It seems as though more high school students are graduating without any evidence that their skill levels have increased.

NAEP not only reports scores but also classifies students into different achievement levels (Basic, Proficient, and Advanced). If we think of Proficient as a rough indicator of college and career readiness, only 26 percent of high school seniors hit that mark. Although high school seniors do better in reading, still only 38 percent are judged Proficient. Combining these disparate data draws a depressing picture of America’s high schools.

Despite large gains in the skills and competencies of the students they take in, our high schools have not been able to improve the performance of their students. High schools gloss over this dismal record by giving students high grades in weak courses with tough titles and then graduating more and more of them. External validity checks (such as NAEP) blow the whistle on this scam.

Mark Schneider is a vice president and an Institute Fellow at AIR.