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THE NATION’S REPORT CARD: Too Many High School Seniors Unprepared for College-Level Math and Reading

“We are encouraged with the gains students have made since 2005, but we are disappointed in declines compared to 1992. Improvement is still needed in both reading and math."

More than 60 percent of the nation’s high school seniors fail to read at a proficient level, according to the results from the 2009 grade twelve reading assessment from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as The Nation’s Report Card. Of those students, 26 percent fail to read at even a basic level. In math, nearly 75 percent of twelfth graders fail to perform at proficient level; 36 percent of those students perform below the basic level.

Overall, the report, The Nation’s Report Card: Grade 12 Reading and Mathematics 2009, finds that the average reading score in 2009 was higher than in 2005 but lower than in 1992. In math, the average score was higher in 2009 than in 2005.

According to the report, 38 percent of twelfth graders performed at or above the proficient level in reading in 2009; this is higher than in 2005, but not significantly different from earlier years. The percentage of students performing at or above basic in 2009 (74 percent) was not significantly different from 2005 and was lower than in 1992. In math, the percentages of students performing at or above proficient and at or above basic were higher in 2009 than in 2005.

“We are encouraged with the gains students have made since 2005, but we are disappointed in declines compared to 1992. Improvement is still needed in both reading and math,” said David Driscoll, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP. “It is noteworthy that grade twelve state-specific scores are available for the first time. I want to commend these eleven states for volunteering to know more about achievement.”

The 2009 NAEP includes results from approximately 100,000 twelfth graders (52,000 students in reading and 49,000 students in mathematics) from 1,670 public and private schools across the nation. For the first time, state-level results are available for twelfth-grade public school students in eleven states that volunteered to participate: Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, South Dakota, and West Virginia.

Of the participating states, five—Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and South Dakota—had higher average scores than the nation in both reading and mathematics. On the other hand, Arkansas, Florida, and West Virginia scored lower than the national average in both subjects. The report points out that the participating states vary widely in their demographics and notes that the percentages of black students ranged from 1 percent in Idaho and New Hampshire to 22 percent in Arkansas, while the percentages of Hispanic students ranged from 1 percent in West Virginia to 24 percent in Florida.

According to the report, nationally, achievement gaps in reading scores between white students and students of color have widened. In reading, white students scored 27 points higher than black students in 2009. In 1992, the achievement gap was 24 points. Compared to the average score of Hispanic students, white students’ score was 22 points higher in 2009, compared to 19 points in 1992. The reading scores also show that while black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native students did not make statistically significant gains since 1992, Asian/Pacific Islander students averaged an 11-point gain while white students averaged a 3-point gain.

Although all student subgroups made improvements in math since 2005, white students scored 30 points higher than black students and 23 points higher than Hispanic students. However, the gaps between these student subgroups are not significantly different from previous years in both subjects. From a gender perspective, females scored 12 points higher than males in reading, while males scored higher in math by a measure of 3 points.

The Nation’s Report Card finds that higher levels of parental education are associated with higher student scores. For example, in both reading and math, students whose parents graduated from college scored higher on average than students whose parents only had some education after high school.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that the report “suggests that high school seniors’ achievement in reading and math isn’t rising fast enough to prepare them to succeed in college and careers.” Duncan noted that 86 percent of high school seniors said they expect to graduate from college according to a survey that accompanied the NAEP test. He also said that the Obama administration is providing $40 billion over the next decade in Pell Grants for disadvantaged students, supporting states as they work to raise standards, and investing in data systems to ensure teachers and parents have the information they need to know how their students and schools are doing.

In a statementBob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia, agreed with Duncan’s assessment; “A high school diploma needs to be paper … and preparation,” he said. “But as the results from The Nation’s Report Card show, far too many students are being handed the paper but not showing the proficiency. The high school seniors included in this report are on the verge of graduation and perhaps college enrollment, but according to the report, 62 percent leave high school without the reading and comprehension skills needed to succeed in college or a career.”

Complete results from The Nation’s Report Card are available at

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