Primary Progress, Secondary Challenge: A State-By-State Look at Student Achievement Patterns

Publication date: Mar 2, 2006

(Washington, DC) – One year after the nation’’s governors pledged to improve American high schools, most states have made progress in raising achievement in the elementary grades, but secondary schools still struggle to close gaps between poor and minority students and their White and more affluent peers, according to a report released today by the Education Trust.

The report, ““Primary Progress, Secondary Challenge: A State-by-State Look at Student Achievement Patterns,”” examines state assessment results in reading and math between 2003 and 2005 and finds that progress in raising achievement and closing gaps continues to be strongest in the elementary grades. Overall achievement in middle and high school has improved somewhat. But, four years after enactment of the No Child Left Behind law, there is still too little progress in narrowing gaps between groups in the secondary grades. The Latino-White gap in math achievement at the high school level, for instance, widened or stayed the same in as many states as it narrowed.

“”There’s enormous evidence from elementary grades that when we focus on raising achievement and closing gaps, we can get the job done,”” said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust. “”But the fact remains that we’’ve still got a lot to do to fix high schools so that they work for all kids, not just a select few.””

“”We have got to maintain momentum in the elementary grades, while dramatically ratcheting up the rate of improvement in our high schools,”” she said.

The report highlights strategies already underway at some high schools that are seeing success in raising achievement for previously low-performing students. They include: improving literacy instruction, assigning all students to challenging courses, and focusing on students’ needs to drive teacher assignment and support.

The analysis also raises questions about the rigor of state tests and standards, putting a spotlight on the huge disparities in student performance on state tests and on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Just 29 percent of the nation’’s eighth-graders demonstrate proficiency in reading and math on federal NAEP assessments. But most states report much higher proficiency rates on their own tests. The report provides a 50-state look at student performance on both tests.

Among the report’s key findings:

  •  Overall achievement gains were most consistent in the elementary grades, where math achievement increased in 29 of 32 states examined, and reading achievement increased in 27 of 31 states. Math achievement declined in one state, reading achievement in three.
  • In middle school math, 29 states improved overall achievement while one lost ground and one saw no change. The picture in middle school reading, however, is less positive. Overall reading achievement increased in only 20 of 31 states examined, while achievement declined in six states and did not change in five others.
  • High school math results increased in 20 of 23 states and decreased in only two. High school reading results increased in 17 of 24 states and decreased in five.

While important, overall trends do not tell the whole story. To ensure that all students meet grade-level standards, schools must increase achievement for all students while accelerating gains for poor and minority children who are often the furthest behind. Many states are meeting this goal in the elementary grades, but the results in middle and high school are disturbing.

The Latino-White gap, for example, saw much less progress in the middle and high school grades. In middle school reading, the gap narrowed in just 17 of 29 states, widened in seven states and stayed the same in five. In high school math, gaps stayed the same or widened in 10 states and narrowed in an equal number. The African American-White gap on high school math assessments narrowed in 12 states, but widened or stayed the same in eight states.

“”The goal here is to help those students who are the furthest behind catch up, while increasing achievement for all students. That’s how we close the achievement gap,”” Haycock said. “Fortunately, a growing body of research is available to help educators do just that. We know what best prepares young people to succeed in the classroom and, ultimately, in their lives beyond school. High schools need to be reorganized around student needs, not adult convenience.””

Daria Hall, senior policy analyst at the Education Trust and the report’s principal author said: “”These findings are cause for optimism and concern — optimism because most states are raising achievement and closing gaps in the elementary grades. But we are deeply concerned because the gains aren’’t extending into our secondary schools.””

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The Education Trust works for the high academic achievement of all students at all levels, pre-kindergarten through college, and forever closing the achievement gaps that separate low-income students and students of color from other youth.

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