In his State of the Union address, President Obama referred to education as an area of bipartisan agreement and said that we have “lifted high school graduation rates to new highs.” According to federal data released late last year, the nation’s high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high, with 82% of the Class of 2014 earning a diploma, prompting then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to boast, “As a result, many more students will have a better chance of going to college, getting a good job, owning their own home, and supporting a family.”
The high numbers are impressive, but what lies behind them is not. Every couple years, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) publishes “The Nation’s Report Card,” in which the performance of students in various subjects, particularly mathematics and reading, are assessed.
An assessment is given to 4th, 8th, and occasionally 12th grade students in mathematics and reading. The scores are divided into basic, proficient, and advanced. For 4th graders, the cutoff for proficiency in math is 250/500. In other words, if a student answers only half of the math questions on the test, (s)he is considered “proficient” in math. For 8th graders, the cutoff for proficiency is 300/500: if a student answers just 60% of the questions on the test, (s)he is considered “proficient” in math.
How did the 82% of high school graduates in 2014, the ones that the President reported in his State of the Union address, perform in math as 8th graders? What percentage of these graduates were “proficient,” i.e., could answer 60% or more of the questions on the math test? Less than 35%! In other words,
almost two thirds of the high school graduates in 2014 failed to answer even half of the math questions on the test when they were 8th graders!
For some reason, NAEP avoids 12th graders. Maybe because it is an embarrassment, as the 2013 results demonstrate. On a test of math given to 12th graders in 2013, only 26% obtained a proficient score of 176/300 – or 58.7%, equivalent to a letter grade of D – and higher. In other words,
almost three quarters of the high school graduates in 2013 received an equivalent grade of D or lower in math!
What about reading? The 2015 results show that 64% of 4th graders and 66% of 8th graders are below proficient in reading. As for the 12th graders, the latest results available are from 2013, which show that about 62% of 12th graders are below proficient in reading. So, students are doing only slightly better in reading than in math.