The Need For Achievement
Technology is coming to education, and that's a very good thing. It's good because it allows for the customization of learning, for more effective teaching, for a vast expansion in the courses and learning opportunities available to students, and for all sorts of other possibilities. But it's also good because this is a time of great need. The nation has a performance problem: a weakness in its educational system that policymakers have been unable to overcome despite decades of continuous effort and gargantuan expense. The levels of student achievement that prevail in modern America are unacceptably low—and this magnifies the value of what technology has to contribute.
To appreciate what technology has to offer, then, and why it stands to have such a big and positive impact, we need to begin with a clear picture of the current state of affairs. How well are America's students really performing? How much have they improved over the years? How do they stack up to kids in other nations?
A Long Way from Proficiency
See how your knowledge of science stacks up against the nation's young people.
A human CANNOT survive the loss of which of the following?
If you answered "Liver," you are doing better than nearly 60 percent of the nation's eighth-grade students. On the 2005 National Assessment of Education Progress (or NAEP) science test, only 42 percent of eighth graders knew that human beings can survive without an appendix, without a lung, or without a kidney—but not without a liver.1 On another test item, only 17 percent knew that the earth's atmosphere is made up mostly of nitrogen and oxygen—a percentage worse than random guessing would yield on a four-option multiple-choice question.2 On another, a full 60 percent thought that condensation was the same as melting, evaporating, or even sweating.3
The NAEP tests have been administered regularly since 1969 to a representative cross section of American students, and provide what is often referred to as the "nation's report card." They are rigorously designed to capture what students ought to be learning across a range of basic subjects, and they are the closest thing the nation has to a gold standard for measuring levels of student achievement as well as changes and trends over time.4
It is widely accepted—and for good reason—that student achievement in the United States is disappointing. But what does "disappointing" mean, more concretely? To put some meat on the bones, let's take a broad summary look at what the NAEP test results have to say, focusing on the percentage of students who score "proficient" on the various exams—a score high enough to show that they have acquired the knowledge and skills that NAEP's experts believe are appropriate for the relevant grade level.5
Consider, for instance, how the nation's eighth graders recently performed in science, an area of knowledge that could hardly be more important to America's future in a globalized, technology-driven economy. In 2005, just 27 percent of them earned a score of proficient or better. By the standards of NAEP, then, nearly three-quarters don't know what they ought to know for their grade level. Indeed, of this huge group of nonproficient students, more than half have learned so little that their performance is labeled "below basic"—which is far below grade level and clearly troubling.
Science is hardly the only problem area. Test results are similarly distressing for every subject. On the most recent U.S. history test, given in 2006, only 17 percent of all eighth graders were proficient or better.6 On the civics exam, given the same year, only 22 percent of eighth graders were proficient or better.7 And on the 2007 test of reading, the most important of all academic skills, only 31 percent of eighth graders scored proficient or better.8 Remarkably, 26 percent of all eighth-grade students tested below basic in reading, a skill level equivalent to functional illiteracy.9
Perhaps our young people are better at math. Consider another recent test question.
The sum of three numbers is 173. If the smallest number is 23, could the largest number be 62?
Math, like science, is a skill of increasing value in the modern economy, and it is vital to technological innovation, where jobs of the future will increasingly lie. Math is also taught daily to students from kindergarten forward—more regularly by far than science, which is not one of the proverbial "3 R's"—so one would expect higher achievement for math than science. But this is barely the case. On the NAEP 2007 math test, only 31 percent of American eighth graders scored proficient or better.10 No surprise, then, that even a math question as simple as the above "sum of three numbers" item stumped most of them. If three numbers sum to 173, and two of them are 23 and 62, then the third would have to be 88. Which is obviously larger than 62. So the answer to the question—requiring nothing more than rudimentary addition and subtraction—is "No." But only 42 percent of eighth graders managed to get it right.11 (Half of them should have gotten it right by guessing randomly.)
These recent test results for eighth graders help to illustrate the current state of affairs in American education: our children are not performing at levels that equip them, or the nation, for the rigors of the twenty-first century. To get a sense of the bigger picture, let's turn to Table 2.1, which provides NAEP data on more academic subjects, students of different ages and ethnicities, and changes over time.12
The early data we present here begin in 1990 or shortly thereafter. The actual base years are slightly different for different academic subjects, depending on the specific years in which they were tested. We chose the early 1990s because it is far enough in the past to allow for significant improvement, but recent enough to have tests that use the same frameworks in use today to measure what students know. It is worth adding that 1990 roughly marks the point at which both the school accountability and the school choice movements began to surge, which means that we will be looking at test score changes over an especially intense period of school reform.13
Consider the scores for reading, the most fundamental of academic skills. Among American fourth graders as a whole, 27 percent were reading proficiently in 1992, and 32 percent were reading proficiently in 2007, for a small gain of 5 percent—a gain that still leaves the level of proficiency quite low. To get a more refined sense of how proficiency has changed over time, however, we need to recognize that the ethnic composition of the student population has changed during this period. In particular, Hispanic students—many of whom do not speak English as a first language, and may just be learning it—made up 7 percent of the test takers in 1992, but were 17 percent of the test takers in 2007. It is more revealing, then, to break down the national test scores by ethnic group to get a clearer sense of what is going on.
When this is done, we see that all three of the ethnic groups depicted here actually made somewhat bigger gains than the national averages would suggest: 9 percent for whites, 6 percent for blacks, and 5 percent for Hispanics. Yet even these larger gains are hardly large in any meaningful sense, because the levels of proficiency remain low. White fourth graders do best, at 42 percent proficient—but this means that most of them still do not know what NAEP believes they ought to know for their grade level. And the figures are dramatically worse—14 percent proficient and 17 percent proficient, respectively—for black and Hispanic fourth graders. These numbers are disturbingly low, and a clear indication that something is very wrong. Yes, there has been progress, but the progress is a drop in the bucket compared to where the nation—and these children—need to be. The achievement gap that divides the races, moreover, has actually widened during this period of time: a period of intense reform in which considerable effort and money were invested in closing that gap.
At the higher grades, the story of reading achievement gets worse. By comparison to fourth graders, eighth graders made gains from 1992 to 2007 that are uniformly smaller for all ethnic groups; and for each ethnic group, the 2007 proficiency outcomes are in the same low range. The twelfth graders, moreover, gain even less than the eighth graders. Indeed, the twelfth graders—who have been in the American K–12 education system the longest and best reflect what it has to offer—actually declined across this period: 3 percent fewer whites were proficient, 1 percent fewer blacks, and 2 percent fewer Hispanics. The achievement gap separating whites from blacks and Hispanics, meanwhile, is just as much in evidence among these older kids as it is among the fourth graders. And here too, the gap is not closing over time.
Math is a brighter picture. From 1990 to 2007, the percentage of students scoring proficient rose considerably in grades four and eight. Among white fourth graders, those demonstrating proficiency jumped from 15 percent to 51 percent; among blacks, from 1 to 15 percent; and among Hispanics, from 4 to 22 percent. For eighth graders, the gains were in the same range, but somewhat smaller in magnitude. Progress for twelfth graders could not be evaluated over this period, because their test was reformulated, and the later scores are not comparable to the earlier ones. Based on the available evidence, though, the overall picture for math is one of progress.
But this progress needs to be understood in context. Math performance began the period with proficiency levels roughly half those of reading, which were themselves quite low. Even with substantial gains, most of the nation's students were still not proficient in math by 2007—and among minorities, the percentage not proficient remained astronomical. The achievement gap has widened, and the evidence suggests that math gains may be especially difficult to make with the neediest populations. The evidence also suggests that math gains become tougher as students move up in grade levels and the skills expected of them become more sophisticated. On the new NAEP grade twelve math test, administered in 2005, fully 72 percent of all white twelfth graders were not proficient in math, and the figure climbed to 95 percent for blacks and 93 percent for Hispanics. We do not know precisely how these outcomes compare to those of earlier years, when the test was significantly different. But we do know that substantially fewer students are achieving high standards at twelfth grade than at eighth and fourth: an ominous sign as students move on to higher education or into the workforce.
And math is the standout. The picture in science and U.S. history is even worse than in reading. Although science is clearly of key importance to children as they—and the nation—move into an increasingly high-tech future, science scores have improved only slightly (a few points) over the last fifteen years for fourth and eighth graders, and the level of proficiency in 2005 remains low. In both grades, almost two-thirds of white students are not proficient, and among minorities it is roughly 90 percent. High school seniors are worse still; their percentage scoring proficient actually declined over the last fifteen years, and the levels of nonproficiency are huge: 77 percent for whites, 98 percent for blacks, and 95 percent for Hispanics.
The results for U.S. history are no better. All age groups have made slight progress, but achievement remains low. Among white fourth and eighth graders, roughly three-fourths fail to reach proficiency, and among blacks and Hispanics about 95 percent miss the mark. For twelfth graders, once again, the scores are even worse: 84 percent of the white students are not proficient, along with 98 percent of the black students and 96 percent of the Hispanic students. History is a subject that teaches facts—which are surely an indispensable part of knowledge—but it also offers a grander perspective on societies and their institutions, an appreciation of context and culture, skills of social analysis, and other important foundations for living a productive life and becoming a good citizen. Most of what the teaching of history has to offer, however, appears to be lost on America's students. They are not benefiting much. And neither is the nation.
NAEP scores provide the best evidence available on the academic achievement of U.S. children, and the summary judgment is not good: the level of achievement is too low, and progress (except in math) has been sluggish and inadequate. In rounding out the picture, we should also point out that children can't learn—and aren't included in the testing—if they drop out of the education process. Traditionally, Americans have justly been proud of the nation's long-standing dedication to getting all children into school and keeping them there until graduation. But the fact is that the percentage of kids graduating from high school is much lower than government statistics have suggested over the years, in part because the figures are difficult to calculate. In recent years, scholars have developed new methods, and the evidence is eye-opening. For the nation as a whole, the high school on-time graduation rate for 2003 was only 70 percent.14 The on-time graduation rate for 1991 was 72 percent. 15 Both rates are unacceptably low, and quite out of keeping with the goal of seeing that all kids get educated. Despite all the reform efforts during the 1990s, moreover, there has clearly been no progress: the graduation rate has actually declined a bit.
These graduation figures are important for what they tell us about the nation as a whole. We also need to recognize, however, that the kids who are at greatest risk are low-income minorities, who tend to be clustered in large urban school districts—and for these kids, graduation rates are much lower than the national average. In Milwaukee, for example, only 39 percent of African American students graduated from high school on time. In Cleveland, it was 47 percent. In Detroit, 43 percent. The graduation rates for Hispanic students are comparable (although they tend to be concentrated in different districts): 44 percent in Los Angeles, 33 percent in New York City, 41 percent in Denver.16 The American education system is letting these kids down. For the kids who stay in school, there is an achievement gap of sizable proportions that hasn't gone away with time and reform. And on top of that, enormous numbers of these kids do not stay in school long enough to graduate—and are entirely unprepared to play productive roles in a competitive economy.
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