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The Education Challenge
To take full advantage of college and workplace opportunities, American students must achieve at much higher levels than they do currently. And the achievement gap between white and minority students, and well-off and low-income students, must be closed.

Stagnating Achievement

National test scores reveal that American academic achievement is stagnating or declining:
  • The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reveals that test scores for American students have stagnated. While 12th grade science and math achievement is up somewhat, reading and writing scores are heading downward. [source 1, slides 2-4; source 2]

  • In 2002, 36 percent of 12th graders tested at or above proficient in reading. And 22 percent tested as proficient in writing. Numbers for math and science are worse. In 2000, 18 percent of twelfth-graders tested at or above the proficient level in science and 17 percent tested at or above the proficient level in mathematics. [source 2]

  • NAEP scores also show that student make more progress between grades 5-8 than 9-12. That is, when students get to high school, their learning progress slows down considerably. The educational value added in high school declined even more in the 1990s, and is still declining. [source 1, slides 12-19]

  • Comparison with other nations indicates that this high school slump is not inevitable. American 4th graders score above the average compared with 4th graders in other countries. American 8th graders sink below the middle, and 12th graders rank near the bottom. [source 1, slides 21-26, source 3]

  • The United States ranked near the bottom in math and science achievement among 21 countries that participated in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). [source 4]

  • U.S. universities and colleges award significantly lower numbers of university science and engineering degrees than their Asian and European counterparts. In 1997, Asia and Europe awarded 640,000 more science and engineering degrees than the United States. By 2000, the gap had grown to 777,000. [source 9]

Despite the low achievement levels, many students want to go to college. But they aren't prepared:
  • More American students are going on to college within two years of high school graduation. (including nearly ½ of the lowest-achieving students). But they are not prepared to do college level work. [source 1, slides 43-44].

  • In 2000, only 31 percent of students completed the 1983 National Commission on Excellence recommendations for college-bound students (4 units of English, 3 units of social studies, 3 units of science, 3 units of mathematics, 2 units of foreign language, and .5 units of computer science). [source 5]

  • Only about half of those who enroll in college earn a bachelor's degree by the time they are 29 years old. [source 6]

  • Among students who sought a bachelor's degree and began their postsecondary studies at a 4-year institution in 1995-96, just over half graduated from that institution within 6 years. [source 7]

  • Students who take remedial coursework are much less likely to persist and eventually earn a degree than are other students, with those requiring the most remediation (more than two semesters of reading) being six times less likely to earn a baccalaureate degree than those requiring no remedial work. [source 6]

  • In fall 2000, 28 percent of entering freshmen enrolled in one or more remedial reading, writing or mathematics courses. [source 8]

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Achievement Gap

While low student achievement overall is disturbing, there is also a significant and troubling achievement gap between White and Asian, and African American and Latino students:
  • According to the 2002 NAEP results for twelfth-graders:
    • 39% of White American students were proficient in reading, compared with 13% of African American students; and

    • 20% of White American students were proficient in mathematics, compared with 3% of African American students.

  • According to the 2000 NAEP results for twelfth-graders:
    • 23% of White American students were proficient in science, compared with 3% of African American Students; and

    • The gap is only slightly smaller between White and Hispanic students in reading, mathematics and science. [source 2]

  • Between 1973-1988, achievement gaps were narrowing. Then in the 1990s that progress halted and the gaps began to widen again. [source 1, slides 6-11]

  • The achievement gap is linked to income as well as race:
    • 19% of non-poor 12th grade students were proficient in math in 2000, compared with 4% of poor students; and

    • 38% of non-poor 12th grade students were proficient in reading in 2002, compared with 21% of poor students. [source 1, slides 32, 34]

  • The achievement gap also affects high school graduation rates:
    • In 2002, 95% of Asian students and 92% of white students aged 18-24 completed a high school credential, while only 84% of African American and 64% percent of Latino students in that age group did so.

    • In 2001, 79% of Asian students and 72% of white students completed a regular high school credential on-time, while only 51% of African American and 52% of Latino students did so. [source 1, slides 40, 41]

  • And it is reflected in college graduation rates. In 1999:
    • 75% of white students completed college;

    • 61% of Latino students completed college; and

    • 45% of African American students completed college. [source 1, slide 50]

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Turning it Around

Some schools with high numbers of minority or low-income students are achieving at high levels. These schools set a clear goal: all students must graduate from high school ready for postsecondary education or training.

Key components of successful schools:
  • High expectations for all students.
    • Teachers often expect less of poor and minority students. Data from Texas show that the gap between poor and minority students who pass a course but fail the end-of-course test is much larger than it is for non-poor, non-minority students. [source 1, slides 108-109]

    • Quality of course assignments matters greatly as well.

  • Challenging curriculum for all students. A challenging curriculum helps even the lowest-quartile students:
    • In one study, lowest quartile students taking a college prep curriculum gained 28% in math and 20% in reading scores between grades 8 and 12, while those taking a vocational curriculum gained 19% in math and 16% in reading scores. [source 1, slide 90]

    • In another study, only 23% of the lowest achievers (per 8th grade reading scores) failed in ninth grade English when given a challenging curriculum. 47% of this group failed when given a low-level curriculum; [source 1, slide 92]

  • Alignment with postsecondary and business expectations for graduates;

  • High teacher quality. Less experienced teachers are disproportionately found in schools with large numbers of poor and minority students. Also, there are more classes taught by out-of-field teachers in poor and minority schools. Above average teachers can have huge effect for low-income or minority students. [source 1, slides 115-118]

Schools that follow these practices can educate all students to high standards, so they can take full advantage of postsecondary and workplace opportunities in a high-skill economy.
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Key Reports

A New Core Curriculum for All: Aiming High for Other People's Children (Education Trust, 2003)
Report that discusses why all students need to be educated to high standards, and makes recommendations for how to do so.

Answers in the Tool Box: Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns and Bachelor's Degree Attainment (Clifford Adelman, U.S. Department of Education, 1999)
Analysis that reveals high school course content to be the most influential variable affecting student completion of a four-year college degree.

Dropout Rates in the United States: 2001 (NCES, 2004)
Report that presents estimates of dropout rates in 2001, and includes time series data on high school dropout and completion rates from 1972-2001. Also examines the characteristics of high school dropouts and high school completers in 2001.

Honor in the Boxcar (Education Trust, 2000)
Report that outlines the Education Trust "commitment: to shine a spotlight on the problem of inequitable teacher distribution; to highlight the communities and states that are trying to solve it; and to otherwise push, pull, shove and help lead an effort to assure that poor and minority children have teachers of at least the same quality as other children."

Improving Achievement in High School and Beyond (Education Trust, 2003)
Powerpoint presentation that shows American students are not achieving at high levels, and recommends that all students be given a rigorous, college-prep curriculum in high school.

It's Time to Tell the Kids: If You Don't Do Well in High School, You Won't Do Well in College (or on the Job) (American Federation of Teachers, 2004)
Article urging parents, teachers, administrators and counselors to stress to students that their high school career--in terms of courses taken, effort put in, and grades attained--greatly affects their chances of graduating from college.

Public High School Graduation and College Readiness Rates in the United States (Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, 2003)
Study that finds only 32% of all students leave high school prepared for college.

Pursuing Excellence A Study of U.S. Twelfth-Grade Mathematics and Science Achievement in International Context (NCES, 1998)
Report that analyzes U.S. performance on an international exam that compares education outcomes at three levels of schooling in mathematics, general knowledge, science general knowledge, physics, and advanced mathematics.

Raising Minority Academic Achievement: A Compendium of Education Programs and Practices (American Youth Policy Forum, 2001)
A synthesis of the programs and practices shown to work in improving the academic achievement of minority students.

Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts (Achieve, 2004)
Report that argues that current high school diplomas do not signify that students are ready for college or work, and recommends developing national benchmark standards for high school graduates in cooperation with business and postsecondary institutions.

Ticket to Nowhere: The Gap Between Leaving High School and Entering College and High-Performance Jobs (Education Trust, 1999)
Issue of Thinking K-16 that shows how high school students (particularly poor and minority students) are being shortchanged with unchallenging courses and low standards that do not prepare them for college or jobs.

Who Graduates? Who Doesn't? (The Urban Institute, 2004)
Nationwide statistical analysis of high school graduation rates (based on No Child Left Behind accountability factors) that reveals a low overall rate of 68% and wide disparities between racial and ethnic groups.

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Center for State Scholars
Organization that promotes business-education partnerships to encourage high school students to take more challenging courses.

Education Trust
Research and advocacy organization that promotes high achievement for all students at all levels.

Institute of Educational Sciences
Office within the Department of Education that seeks to make the field of education research more rigorous. Includes the National Center for Education Research, the National Center for Education Statistics, and the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.

National Assessment of Educational Progress, NAEP
"Assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas," given at regular intervals in schools across the country.

National Center for Educational Statistics
"[P]rimary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data that are related to education in the United States and other nations."

What Works Clearinghouse
Clearinghouse in the Department of Education that "provide[s] educators, policymakers, and the public with a central, independent, and trusted source of scientific evidence of what works in education."

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(1) The Educational Imperative: What Do We Know About Student Achievement? Education Trust, 2004. (PPT)

(2) National Assessment of Educational Progress, NAEP.

(3) Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, Ongoing

(4) Pursuing Excellence: A Study of U.S. Twelfth-Grade Mathematics and Science Achievement in International Context
(NCES 98-049), U.S. Department of Education, 1998.

(5) The Condition of Education 2003, U.S. Department of Education, NCES, 2003.

(6) The Condition of Education 2002, U.S. Department of Education, NCES, 2002.

(7) Adult Literacy in America: A First Look at the Findings of the National Adult Literacy Survey, U.S. Department of Education, NCES, 1993.

(8) Remedial Education at Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions in Fall 2000, NCES, 2003.

(9) The Employment Policy Foundation's Ninth-Annual Workplace Report: The American Workplace 2004.