Scores for 12th graders on the NAEP math and reading assessments were released this week, and the news wasn’t good. Reading scores were flat (and have been since 2009), and math scores dropped. What’s more disturbing though is that the performance gap between high- and low-achievers appears to be widening.
As the person who oversees NAEP administration told Education Week:
In the case of reading…students at the top of the distribution are going up and students at the bottom of the distribution are going down.
Even if performance across the board among 12th graders was flat, it would still be a problem given that there seems to be some progress at the fourth- and eighth-grade levels through an era of standards-based reform and accountability.
Cause for concern? Yes. But let’s be clear about what’s happening here.
High School Isn’t the Problem
Low performance on the 12th-grade NAEP exam doesn’t signal a problem with 12th graders, or even with high schoolers. Instead, it is a clear marker that the 12-year foundation upon which students’ futures are built is incredibly weak.
It would be a mistake to focus too much on figuring out what’s wrong in high school. We certainly need more supports there for students navigating their path forward to a career or college. We need to expand access to more challenging courses, like AP classes, and offer more pathways that prepare students to enter competitive, in-demand technical fields, particularly in computer science.
Yet what the 12th-grade NAEP scores tell us is that it’s the struggling students who are having the most difficulty. It’s important to understand that those students didn’t begin struggling in high school—their condition is not newly developed. In this sense, when it comes to helping low-achieving students perform better, “fixing” high school is like treating cancer at stage 4 instead of stage 1.
Too many students fall behind their peers in earlier grades, but continue onward without the supports and high-quality instruction they need to catch up. As the stakes get higher, the rigor and knowledge necessary become greater, and the choices of study become more expansive, those learning gaps become completely exposed.
The Scores Are Telling Us What We Already Know
And it’s not just the learning gaps among students that are exposed by the 12th-grade NAEP scores. The significant gap between the percentage of students who score at a college- and career-ready level on NAEP and the percentage of students who graduate high school could be greater than 40 percentage points. In other words, high schools may be graduating twice as many students as are ready for life after high school.
Simply put, for millions of students, the entire K-12 education system is a sham. It’s as if the time they spent in school supposedly acquiring knowledge and skills necessary to accomplish their goals didn’t actually happen.
Imagine getting almost to the finish line, and in many cases, across it, only to find out that you’re not actually prepared for what comes next. Thousands of kids across the country experience exactly that every year, leaving them asking in exasperation, “When was I supposed to learn all of this if not for the past 12 years I spent in school?”
Sure, it’s important to remember that NAEP scores are not the only indicator of post-secondary readiness. There are other subjects beyond math and reading, soft skills, exposure to enrichment opportunities…a student could master many things, but still perform poorly on NAEP.
But who really believes that high school graduates are better prepared than the NAEP data suggests?
In fact, the worst part about all of this may be that there is no news here. The 12th-grade NAEP scores tell us what we already know. Students know they’re not ready, though often they don’t understand the nature of their own under-preparedness until they’re in college or a demanding workplace.
Employers know that their candidate pool is too small, that students of color and from diverse backgrounds are woefully underrepresented, and that their new hires are often lacking basic skills and require further training.
College instructors know that each freshman class includes a staggering number of students who need remedial coursework before they can move forward, and a significant percentage of those students will find the path to a degree too expensive and too long to complete.
Perhaps another year of talking about these scores will pressure the system and policymakers to respond with even greater urgency. Every time I hear someone talk about “reform fatigue,” I think of indicators like 12th-grade NAEP scores.
I imagine lots of folks are tired of hearing about education reform and talking of testing and accountability. They can’t be nearly as tired though as the communities full of people looking for jobs and trying to figure out how it is that they went exactly where they were told to go—all the way through high school—only to find out they still can’t actually get anywhere.