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“CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?”: Nation’s Seventeen-Year-Olds Make No Progress in Reading or Math Since Early ’70s

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“The results at ages nine and thirteen are encouraging, but the lack of improvement by high school students provides little comfort.”

Although nine- and thirteen-year-olds have made significant gains in both reading and math, recent results from a national test indicate that the average scores for seventeen-year-olds have remained flat since the early 1970s. Such were the findings from National Association of Educational Progress (NAEP) long-term trend assessments in reading and math, which were released on April 28. The report,The Nation’s Report Card: NAEP 2008 Trends in Academic Progress, makes it possible to chart educational progress since 1971 in reading and 1973 in math because it largely relies on the same assessment decade after decade.

“The results at ages nine and thirteen are encouraging, but the lack of improvement by high school students provides little comfort,” said Darvin M. Winick, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees and sets policy for NAEP. “Clearly, we need to do more to ensure that students are continuing to learn throughout elementary, middle, and high school and are prepared for higher education and the workforce.”

According to the report, the average reading score for nine-year-olds was four points higher than in 2004 and twelve points higher than in 1971. Thirteen-year-olds showed some improvement, gaining three points since 2004 and five points since the test was first given, but seventeen-year-olds, even with a three-point uptick since 2004, fared no better than their peers in 1971, as indicated in the chart below.

Trend in NAEP Reading Average Scores from 1971–2008

can you hear me now

“If you end up in the emergency room with an EKG that shows this kind of flat line, someone should be putting electrically charged paddles to your chest,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “Some student gains are being made in the elementary and middle schools, but if our high schools were cell phones, these NAEP results are a massive cry of ‘can you hear me now.’”

The report also finds that large percentages of high school students struggle to understand complicated information. According to the report, only 39 percent of seventeen-year-olds can “understand complicated literary and informational passages, including material about topics they study at school,” it reads.

In math, nine- and thirteen-year-olds made more significant gains, posting higher average scores in 2008 than in all previous assessments. But again, the average scores of seventeen-year-olds were essentially flat.

Margaret Spellings, who served as Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush, told the New York Times that the results were a vindication of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which was enacted in 2002. “It’s not an accident that we’re seeing the most improvement where NCLB has focused most vigorously,” she said. “The law focuses on math and reading in grades three through eight—it’s not about high schools. So these results are affirming of our accountability-type approach.”

Progress in closing achievement gaps between white students and minority students, another key goal of NCLB, was mixed. In reading and math, the difference between the average white score and the average African American score has narrowed for all three age groups since 1971, but only a fraction of the change has occurred since 1999. The same was true for the achievement gap between white and Hispanic students.

Wise noted that these results come at a crucial time with the White House and Congress able to direct massive efforts to transforming high schools. “The recently enacted American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act can provide the kind of genuine stimulus that America’s high schools need to provide a world-class education to all of America’s students,” he said.

The complete results on the NAEP long-term trend assessments are available at http://nationsreportcard.gov/ltt_2008/.

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