12th-Grade Test Scores Haven't Improved At All. Now for the Good News

The bad news in today’s results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress is that average math and reading scores for the nation’s 12th-graders didn’t budge from 2009 to 2013, and they were up just slightly from 2005. But as your high school teachers told you, pay attention: The overall stagnation masks some positive developments.

For one, math and reading scores have improved noticeably since 2005 for every ethnic group. Overall scores have shown less of a gain only because of a tilt in the mix of test-takers from non-Hispanic whites to Hispanics, who tend to score lower. The other piece of good news is that the overall scores were weighed down by an increase in students with disabilities, students for whom English is a second language, and students who in the past would have dropped out before reaching 12th grade. If not for their inclusion—which is a good thing—scores would have grown more.

The bottom line is that stagnant isn’t so bad when you consider the changing mix of students taking the test. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which calls itself “the nation’s report card,” was released today by the Department of Education. A nationally representative sample of about 92,000 12th graders took the test from January 2013 to March 2013.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan focused on the negative in his statement released today. “Despite the highest high school graduation rate in our history, and despite growth in student achievement over tie in elementary school and middle school, student achievement at the high school level has been flat in recent years.”

“Just as troubling,” Duncan added, “achievement gaps among ethnic groups have not narrowed.” He said, “We project that our nation’s public schools will become majority-minority this fall.” He said, “We must do better for all students, especially for African-American and Latino students.”

Actually, Duncan has it backwards. Stagnation in scores hasn’t occurred “despite” the highest high school graduation rate in history—it has partly been caused by it. Education Week quotes John Easton, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, as saying that since more students are staying in school, the recent testing sample “includes more lower-performing students who would have dropped out in the past.”

Then there are the ethnic factors. In 2005, white students accounted for 66 percent to 67 percent of the test-takers. By 2013, whites were down to 58 percent of test-takers. Hispanics went from 13 percent to 14 percent of test-takers in 2005 to 20 percent in 2013.

The white-Hispanic gap in reading grew just slightly from 2005 to 2013, while the gap in math shrank. The white-black gap in reading grew from 2005 to 2013, while the gap in math was stable. Blacks’ share of test-takers didn’t change.

Easton said the Education Department isn’t using the changing ethnic mix of test-takers as an excuse for score stagnation. “Our 12th grade population is our 12th grade population and we don’t explain away test scores based on demographics,” he told Education Week.

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