Press Release

The results released today from the 2005 12th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress are a sobering reminder of the need for increased focus on and support for the students and teachers in our nation’’s high schools.

Over a quarter of the nation’’s high school seniors lack even basic reading skills.  Over forty percent lack even basic mathematics skills. Almost half are below the basic level in science.  As bad as these numbers are, the data on the achievement of low-income students and students of color is even more painful and alarming.

“”These low levels of high school achievement would be easier to bear if the trend line was moving upward, as it is for our younger students,”” said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust. “”Sadly, though, this is not the case. Every data source over the last several years tells the same story: gains in elementary and middle schools are not translating into better prepared high school graduates.”” 

Reading achievement has declined since 1998, with no significant difference since the last time the test was administered, in 2002.  This echoes the downward trends in high school science achievement we saw in the spring of 2005.  And while we cannot examine trends in math achievement because of changes to the test, a comparison of mathematics achievement between 2000 and 2005 shows that 12th-graders are no better prepared to meet the expectations we have of them today than they were to meet expectations five years ago.  Results from the 2004 NAEP Long-Term Trends Assessment confirm this lack of progress in math achievement.

It is important to keep in mind here that these results reflect the achievement of just those students who actually make it to 12th grade.  The best available estimates show that of every 100 students who enter 9th grade, just 75 will make it to 12th grade four years later.  Those who do not make it that far are disproportionately low-income students and students of color who struggle academically.

These disappointing achievement results come alongside evidence from the 2005 High School Transcript Study that more students are enrolling in higher-level high school courses.   Over half of 2005 graduates completed a midlevel or rigorous curriculum, as opposed to just 31 percent of graduates in 1990.

This picture of increased high-level course-taking but no progress in achievement may be misinterpreted by some as an unavoidable trade-off between greater and more equitable access to high-level courses and raising achievement. The flawed but seductive argument assumes that if we let more students into these courses, we inevitably lower the quality of these courses.  This pattern is undoubtedly playing out in some schools, but we know that it doesn’’t have to be this way. “”The myth that it’s an either-or proposition of access or excellence is dead wrong,”” said Daria Hall, assistant director for K-12 policy development. “”We have studied high schools around the country that are working for all students and we know that increased rigor and higher achievement can go hand in hand.””

However, while some schools and systems are pointing the way, it is clear that public education generally has not changed enough to meet students’ or society’s needs. “”Without high-quality, rigorous curriculum and good teaching, advanced courses are advanced in name only,”” said Haycock.  ““Just slapping new names on courses with weak curriculum and ill-prepared teachers won’t boost achievement.””

The new NAEP data illustrate this problem, and underscore the fact that issues of curriculum and teacher quality are more acute for students of color. This is seen clearly in the fact that students of color—those who are least likely to get access to rigorous expectations and instruction—achieve at lower levels than their White peers even when they take courses labeled “”advanced”.”  For example, African-American graduates who completed Calculus perform math at the same levels as White graduates who completed just Pre-calculus or Statistics.

Data from Illinois expose one of the underlying causes for this gap in achievement. The truth is that students of color often are provided with very different opportunities to learn in their schools. Researchers at the Illinois Education Research Council have developed a robust teacher quality index for each school that includes teachers’ certification status, years of experience, performance on licensure exams and individual teacher’s academic background and skills.  Then, the researchers demonstrated that students who only went through Algebra II in schools with just average teacher quality were more likely to be college-ready than students who went all the way through Calculus in schools with the lowest teacher quality.   The message is clear:  having a well-qualified teacher who knows her content material is more important than the name of the course in terms of demonstrated achievement.  But the Illinois researchers also demonstrated that schools serving poor and minority students were overwhelmingly more likely to be at the very bottom in terms of teacher quality.  Fully 60 percent of high-minority schools in Illinois are in the bottom 10 percent for teacher quality and 84 percent are in the bottom quartile.

These inequities in teacher quality are compounded by the fact that states and school systems have not provided teachers with guidance in determining what’s ‘good enough’ when it comes to student work.   While states have worked to develop standards for what high school students should know and be able to do, they typically have not provided teachers with model assignments or clear images of what ‘on-standard’ work looks like, and have not created time for collaboration among teachers to align their assignments with the standards.

The result is that different schools and classrooms continue to have wildly different expectations for different groups of students.  These disparate expectations are manifested in the assignments given to different students in courses with the same name and ostensibly the same content. “All too often, while one English 10 class is writing analytic essays, another English 10 class right down the hall is filling out worksheets,” said Hall.  “Students in the latter class may be meeting the expectations set out for them—indeed the High School Transcript Study data show that student grade point averages have been steadily increasing—but we cannot pretend for a minute that these students are being prepared to achieve at the level they need  for entering college or work.”  (For examples of disparate assignments used in high schools, please see accompanying PowerPoint presentation “”Expectations Matter.””)

Today’’s NAEP results represent systemic failure.  “”Students are doing what is asked of them—they are taking more academic courses and getting higher grades—but they aren’t being taught any more than in the past,”” said Haycock. ““To change these patterns, we need to get serious about ensuring that all students have access to qualified teachers, that all teachers have a common understanding of what their students need to learn, and that high school coursework truly reflects the high expectations we need our young people to meet.””