High school test scores haven’t improved for 40 years; top students stagnating

Is U.S. high school a wasteland? Or are teenagers getting a better education today than they were 40 years ago? That’s a puzzle offered in a release of national test scores on June 27, 2013 by the National Center of Education Statistics.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), test scores for 17 year olds have not improved since the early 1970s. That is, the average 17 year old in 2012 got about the same score in reading and math (287 and 306, respectively) as a 17 year old in 1971 or 1973 did (285 and 304, respectively). Scores have bobbled up and down a point or two over the years, but, statistically speaking, they’ve been indistinguishable from each other. (These scaled score numbers are arbitrary, but think of them like SAT scores. A difference between, say, a 580 and a 590 on a math SAT isn’t huge. And the difference between 285 and a 290 on this NAEP test is also tiny).

While 17 year olds have flatlined, both nine and 13 year olds have shown statistically meaningful progress during this same 40-year time period. So, you can’t explain it by the changing racial/ethnic demographics in our country. (Back in 1971, 80 percent of U.S. students were white, compared with 56 percent in 2012. The Hispanic population soared from 6 percent to 21 percent).

So the question is, what’s going on — or not going on — in high school?

“We’re all concerned with these high school students,” said Dr. Peggy Carr, the associate commissioner of NCES. “The pattern is clear…younger students are showing stronger gains.”

One answer offered by Carr is that high school drop out rates have plummeted and that means that we’re not comparing the same group of students. Dr. Carr particularly pointed to the Hispanic drop out rate, which more than halved from 32 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2010. That means that the weakest teenagers who weren’t even part of the testing pool in 1971 because they’d dropped out of school are now staying in school. Their low test scores might be bringing down an average that would otherwise have been higher.

Carr argues that flat scores aren’t terrible. “It’s a good thing that they’re not going down,” she said.

You can test that hypothesis by looking at NAEP’s breakdown of scores by percentiles. If the dropout theory holds water, then students who score in the middle and top should have been showing improvements over the past 40 years just like the nine and 13 year olds.

Instead, we see stagnation at the middle and the top. All the gains are among the bottom students. (Click on the chart below to see a larger version.)

Screen Shot 2013-06-27 at 10.10.11 AM

For example, a student who ranked at the top 90th percentile in 1971 had a reading score of 342. In 2012 his reading score was 340 — statistically identical. The same is true for students at the 75th and 50th percentiles. You only see long-term gains among students at the bottom 10th and 25th.

There’s a similar story in math. The bottom students are showing the biggest gains, and here, the middle students show a bit of improvement. But no improvement among the top kids.

Screen Shot 2013-06-27 at 3.22.09 PM

So, we seem to be doing a decent job of starting to close the achievement gap, but perhaps at a cost of not propelling our best students. Perhaps high school is a wasteland for them? We’re not just talking public schools. This long-term NAEP test is a statistically representative sample of students in the entire nation, including the wealthiest children who attend private schools.

Back in May 2013 I attended a seminar by Martin Carnoy of Stanford University, who was analyzing different international data. But his conclusion was the same. “The problem is at the top,” he said. “U.S. top students are way behind top students in other countries.”

POSTED BY Jill Barshay ON June 27, 2013

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Lourdes Perez Ramire

If education achievement is measured only based on test scores, forget it, you will never see improvement. The business of test-making moguls (including so-called “not-for-profit” testing organizations like The College Board and ACT), is not to improve education but to sell more and more tests (or “suites” like ACT calls them).

Testing is not learning. Au contraire, testing, like the one the real education experience children are being robbed of these days takes time from learning. Teachers, school administrators and students are required to spend hours on test prep because too much is at stake (hence, high-stake) including, not only students’ future, but teachers’ jobs, and even real estate values!

Moreover, minorities and students from low-income families attend the worst schools with excessive number of students per teachers; have the lowest-paid teachers, lack modern facilities and equipment, and can’t compete with White children whose parents can, and do pay for as much test-prep testing companies say guarantee high scores.

So why scores have not improved in 4 decades? Because selling states the idea that tests should be mandatory (meaning millions of public education dollars), and parents the ill-conceived idea that taking the tests over and over again, guarantees a better education, of course never revealing that making millions while at it, is the real objective of testing moguls like ACT, The College Board, and Pearson.

And, as if it were not enough, to acquire further control of education and assure the millions of public education dollars are “well invested” ACT, The College Board, and others, have convinced President Obama, who promised to get rid of the bubble-based tests, they have invented the common core state initiative. An initiative developed by the same testing moguls, and to which little or no teachers were called to be involved (not until the last moment). Common core that comes with strings attached called common core testing.

Successful? For testing companies, of course, including those who have tax exemption hidden under a “not-for-profit” cloak such as ACT.

Failure? Absolutely! Failure to REALLY consider how these business strategies would REALLY impact students.

The result? Arnie Duncan had to recognize there is too much to do, too many changes at the same time are difficult to implement.


Lourdes Perez ramirez, MA
President, Founder

About HispanEduca
Our mission is to empower all Hispanics, regardless of their socioeconomic level, but especially low-income families, with information about education policies and reform so they have the opportunity to influence and develop education policies that help increase Hispanic/Latino education attainment levels.

Jill Barshay

@Lourdes Many teachers, parents and education experts share your antipathy to testing. But this particular test shows us something good too: Hispanic students have shown some of the biggest gains over the past 40 years. I was just about to post a second post on the long-term NAEP test results and the closing achievement gap tomorrow morning.

Lourdes Perez Ramire

Thanks for keeping the conversation going. I appreciate your comments.

It is understandable that, as you say, “Hispanic students have shown some of the biggest gains over the past 40 years. ” That fact has to be carefully considered vis a vis the demographic growth of the Hispanic population.
As the Hispanic population grows, there is some growth in educational achievement.
What we can’t conclude is that standardized tests have been the sole variable responsible for that growth in educational achievement.

Your thoughts are very welcome.



Lourdes Perez Ramirez, MA
President, Founder

About HispanEduca
Our mission is to empower all Hispanics, regardless of their socioeconomic level, but especially low-income families, with information about education policies and reform so they have the opportunity to influence and develop education policies that help increase Hispanic/Latino education attainment levels.

Ajay Srikanth

Hi Jill:

Could it be that increased school spending and school finance lawsuits have perhaps led to increased test scoresl?


Also, another thing to keep in mind: IDEA and the Bilingual Education Act weren’t passed until around 1975. So it’s entirely possible that those 2 pieces of legislation played a big role in increased scores as well. Would need to compare % LEP and % with Disabilities as well

Tom Hoffman

One of the great risks in the whole testing and accountability strategy is the possibility that the lower grade standards and tests will be written in such a way that improving achievement in lower grade test scores does not give the kids the skills they need to achieve at higher grades.

Imagine how many years would be necessary to figure this out if the tests and standards are out of alignment.

This is where the criticisms of the Common Core standards not being field tested comes in. You don’t need to field test the final outcomes. If you want graduates to be able to write an argument, one can’t prove that right or wrong. But if you establish 13 yearly benchmarks on the path to writing an argument, you can and should test that process, and unfortunately, at best that takes 13 years to do the job completely.

That’s why most of the Common Core, and most discussion argument about achievement of intermediate standards in general, is just handwaving. Particularly if nobody uses the same set of standards for more than a handful of years.

Jill Barshay

@Ajay. I think you are right that the biggest gains for Hispanics occurred in the 70s and 80s after legislation, such as the laws you mentioned, were passed.

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