High School Scores Go Up While Skill Levels Go Down
> 2/23/2007 11:00:44 AM

This week, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released a discouraging report that will certainly lead to further questions about what goes on in America's high school classrooms. While students are taking more college credit courses, earning more credits and scoring higher grades, they are considerably less efficient in basic English and math than their counterparts 15 years ago. Researchers made these assessments using standardized test scores and high-school transcripts from 2005 and comparing them to identical measurements from 1992. In that year, only 80 percent of 12th graders displayed mastery of basic reading skills. By 2005, the number declined to 73. More upsetting is the percentage of the same group rated proficient, a number which dropped from 40 to 35 percent. A brief description of "proficiency": students are able to make a critical judgment about a detailed document and explain their reasoning. When two out of three high school seniors cannot exercise critical judgement on a given text, one has to wonder what they are learning in English class. Given these statistics, it is not surprising to learn that only 5 percent of the 2005 class scored high enough to qualify as advanced in English (which is, coincidentally, the native language for the vast majority of these kids) even though they averaged at least 350 additional hours of classroom instruction throughout their high school careers.

Math scores were more difficult to gague due to changing test formats, but  it seems counterintuitive to believe that the numbers did not move along a similar downward slope. The fact that more than 60 percent of the student body achieved a basic knowledge of mathematical processes using the new scoring framework seems encouraging, but one has to wonder how this statistic compares to cumulative scores in the past, and whether the changes themselves constituted an attempt to boost scores in the face of declining skill levels.

On the upside, students are very obviously more concerned about their post-secondary educations than at any point in the past: the percentage of high schoolers who took some form of college preparatory course rose from 40 percent in 1992 to 68 percent in 2005. And, by relative standards of achievement, a considerably greater number performed satisfactorily: average GPAs increased
nearly one-third of a letter grade from 2.68 to 2.98. But how can these students be expected to perform in college when their grades only serve to mask deficiencies in applied knowledge?

And why do better grades not reflect greater competence? Many point to grade inflation arising from an increasing pressure to list impressive numbers. Under current law, many schools have no choice but to improve their ratings, even if it means lowering standards considerably, particularly for traditionally underperforming segments of the population. Reported examples of this sort of flagrant grade inflation include assignments where high-performing students must read and compare texts while others draw and design games based on the same material. Still, disparities based on race and socioeconomic class remained stagnant throughout this time despite repeated studies proving that, when presented with identical material, impoverished and minority students score just as high as their peers. Gender gaps actually widened during the period in question, with most girls ranked at least a year ahead of their male counterparts in reading and writing skills. Also very important to consider is the fact that these reports only measure the performance of students who actually made it to the 12th grade. Of all the American kids who enter high school, only 3 in 4 even register as seniors.

What good can be drawn from these reports? At the very least, they've produced a palpable sense that, in the words of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, "
The consensus for strengthening our high schools has never been stronger." And we couldn't agree more. Now let's hear specific proposals for action.

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