12th-Graders Lag in Competency Tests

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New test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress on 12th-grade reading and math show little progress, despite improvements in the kinds and levels of courses students are taking.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

There is new research today that shows achievement in the nation's high schools is stalled. Seniors are working harder in class, and they have slightly better grades to show for it. But as NPR's Elaine Korry reports, their scores on the leading national standardized test have hardly budged.

ELAINE KORRY: Results from new data called the Nation's Report Card are mixed. They're sobering, and most of all, a puzzle. Charles Smith directs the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the tests.

Dr. CHARLES SMITH (Executive Director, National Assessment Governing Board): On the one hand, today's high school graduates, based to one report, are earning more class credits, enrolling in tougher courses and earning higher grade point averages.

KORRY: So far so good. Now, the bad news.

Dr. SMITH: But for some reason, those gains have not led to increased achievement in the nation's report card, where the performance in the second report is lackluster.

KORRY: Lackluster is being kind. According to the 2005 National Assessment, a quarter of high school seniors can't even read at a basic level. That's a big drop from 1992, which serves as a base line for the test. The latest results are flat, virtually no progress since the test was last given five years ago. The results are mathematics or even worse, only one in five 12th-graders scored at the proficient level, meaning they're ready for college math.

The achievement gap between white and poorer minority students remains. And here's the rub: a separate review of high school transcripts shows seniors' grades are up slightly, and their courses are supposedly more advanced.

Mr. ROSS WIENER (Principal Partner, Education Trust): We have been pretending that we have been improving academic achievement in our high schools.

KORRY: Ross Wiener is with the Education Trust, a think tank in Washington. He says the latest reports are proof that the recent focus on boosting high schools standards has been mere window dressing.

Mr. WIENER: The course names may have changed the grade, the grades may have changed, but the expectations and the instruction has stayed the same.

KORRY: In the trenches, some educators are reaching the same conclusion. David Gordon is the school superintendent for Sacramento County in California. The fast-growing region has 73,000 high school students of different income levels and languages. Gordon says they all need to be challenged.

Mr. DAVID GORDON (Superintendent, Sacramento County, California): Someone needs to begin pulling back the curtain and looking in the classrooms.

KORRY: According to Gordon, the new watchwords ought to be rigor and accountability. He says it's no longer enough to push kids into algebra 2 or pre-calculus if no one's checking to see that the curriculum is complete.

Mr. GORDON: If you cover only a third of the material in the syllabus and you finish the course, that's not acceptable. Or if you cover the material but you're not checking to make sure the students are getting the material, then that's not acceptable, either.

KORRY: The Bush administration agrees. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings issued a statement saying the two reports released today show that, quote, "We have our work cut out for us." In his push to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush has emphasized the need to strengthen high schools. He's proposed a $1.2 billion budget increase for schools with low-income students. He also wants new grants for poor students who take tough academic courses, and more money to strengthen math and science teaching.

Elaine Korry, NPR News.

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