The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), released this week, offer little to celebrate. Political leaders and education advocates are struggling to find evidence that their preferred policy—whatever it might be—is having much impact on student performance. Progress has stalled in recent years, and results at the state and national level are far below where most education policymakers thought they would be by now. Despite the efforts of George W. Bush, many children are still being left behind; despite the efforts of Barack Obama, the race to the top didn’t produce many winners.
Administered to a representative sample of youngsters, the NAEP is a rigorous test, the only instrument we have to make valid comparisons across states—and some major local school districts—and to track nationwide progress over time. The test sets a high bar for achievement: it defines “proficiency” as mastery of challenging subject matter, as distinguished from grade-level proficiency (good enough to pass). The NAEP results reveal that slightly more than a third of the nation’s eighth-graders were proficient in reading and math in 2017. These numbers have moved up slowly: since 2003, math proficiency is up five points, to 34 percent, and reading is up four points, to 36 percent. But the average eight-grade math score is currently 16 points below proficiency, while the average reading score falls 14 points short—discouraging figures, though better than 2003. If improvement continues at this glacial pace, it will be 45 years until the average eighth-grader is considered proficient in mathematics and 49 years for an average eighth-grader to achieve reading proficiency.
We should not be surprised by the NAEP findings, as they align with trends in college completion. Nationally, 84 percent of high school students graduate, and of those, about 70 percent enroll in a two- or four-year college. But college-completion rates are just 60 percent for four-year colleges and 30 percent for two-year colleges. Overall, only about 30 percent of the students who start out in the American K-12 system complete a college degree by age 25. Students who plan to complete college should be scoring at the NAEP’s proficiency levels by eighth grade; two-thirds are not doing so.
Stagnant NAEP scores should be a wakeup call for education advocates and politicians who see the purpose of primary and secondary education as preparation for college. Most students will never complete college—a stubborn truth since the birth of our educational system that remains true today. Any growth in the proportion of young people earning a college degree by their mid-twenties will be slow.
Given this reality, it’s vital that we offer students meaningful preparation for adulthood that doesn’t require a college degree—for example, a dedicated program of career and technical education. Good career training requires time spent out of the classroom and in workplace apprenticeships. Schools in all sectors—districts, charters, and private schools—should innovate in this important area. State policy should not stand in the way of solid training for the working world. Working adults regularly achieve excellence in non-academic disciplines; it’s how they make a living. Schools should embrace this reality instead of regarding it as a second-best option. Some students will never achieve beyond the basic academic level, but these kids shouldn’t be doomed just because they’re not college-bound.
Academic success and college attainment are particularly rare in low-income schools and communities, but students in some district, charter, and private schools have outperformed these expectations. Many low-income students in large cities have benefited from selective high schools offering a rigorous curriculum to the highest achievers. Policymakers should support these schools and look for ways to expand their numbers. At the same time, school systems should monitor performance and intervene swiftly in schools that fail to bring most of their students to at least basic levels of achievement.
Values matter. Schools should model civil behavior and give all students—no matter where their future paths lead—grounding in the habits and behaviors of adulthood.