Have Increased Graduation Rates Artificially Depressed America’s 12th-Grade Performance?

By 04/30/2012

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One of the great mysteries of modern-day school reform is why we’re seeing such strong progress (in math at least, especially among our lowest-performing students) at the elementary and middle school levels, but not in high school.

Consider: Nine-year-olds at the 10th percentile posted 12 points of progress between 1990 and 2008 on the long-term National Assessment of Educational Progress—10 of those points between 1999 and 2004 alone. (That’s about a grade level’s worth of gains.) Thirteen-year-olds at the 10th percentile posted 7 points of progress from 1990 and 2008. But seventeen-year-olds at the 10th percentile only gained 3 points. (The story is much the same for the 25th percentile.) The story for reading is more sobering, with big gains at the nine-year-old level, a flattening out in middle school, and actually declines in high school.

NAEP Age 17

The question is how to interpret these trends. One hypothesis is about fade-out: The improvements at the elementary level are ephemeral, perhaps because the way math or reading is taught doesn’t set students up for future success. In reading, for example, it’s quite likely that a heavy focus on phonics is helping students to decode better—and post better scores as nine-year-olds—but isn’t giving them the vocabulary or content knowledge to keep making progress in middle school. Another hypothesis is that our high schools aren’t as strong as our elementary schools, perhaps because they haven’t been the focus of as much reform and attention.

Let me float a third theory: Could it be that increased graduation rates are driving down twelfth-grade performance? Recent studies have indicated that graduation rates are up significantly over the past decade; that means that we have twelfth-graders in school today who previously would have dropped out. And those students are likely to be very low-achieving. Could they be pulling down the mean? Just like we see with the SAT as more students—and more lower-income students—take the exam?

I’m not a statistician but it seems plausible to me. Number-crunchers out there: What say ye?

-Mike Petrilli

This blog entry originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

Comment on this article
  • Jane Patton says:

    I obviously haven’t seen the actual data here, but from what your graph is showing, I think even your presentation of the results here is a little misleading. It is certainly true that between 1990 and 2008, 17-year olds taking the NAEP math assessment have gained an average of 3 points within the 10th percentile. However, you’re failing to comment on the fact that in nearly every percentile, scores since 2000-2001 appear to be declining slightly. That is to say: not only have 17-year-olds in the 10th percentile only gained 3 points since 1990, but they at one point in the intervening years had gained more than that 3 points, and are now falling again.

    To me, this is a more interesting question – or at least, it adds a new element to the one you’re posing here: why are 17-year-olds not gaining as much in test scores as younger students, and why did the small gains they have made in the last 18 years peak around the start of the decade, only to fall again? Is this some flaw inherent to the way we teach or test high school students since the passage of No Child Left Behind?

    As a number cruncher, I think your hypothesis probably holds some truth – that low-performing teenagers are staying in school rather than dropping out, and are thus dragging down the average. However, looking at the history of NAEP also reveals a potential underlying causation here. From 1990 to 1996, NAEP was an exam given by voluntary involvement at the state level – states had to opt in to have their students tested. Since 1996, the population of students taking the NAEP has grown, incorporating new demographics and new proportions of existing demographics. Therefore, the population being analyzed here has changed significantly between 1990 and 2008, which could very well be affecting the results.

    But I think these data also have implications for the so-called ‘reforms’ put in place since adoption of NCLB.

  • Mary Murphy says:

    One explanation might be that math teachers have to have some content knowledge to teach math plus math is more likely to have students grouped by ability and/or achievement in middle school. Then, there will likely be some students who stop taking math in high school because they are no longer required to or expectations will drop off for non-motivated students as they get older because it’s easier not to deal with them.

    Reading and language arts scores could be improved if students were put into fluid groups, and students started spending more time on reading (rather than being read to), researching, learning to write arguments and compare and contrast material, and grammar. Currently, a lot of time seems to be spent on having the teacher read to students (so all students can learn to appreciate good literature), art projects (so every student can feel better about him or herself and achieve, and group work (so a strong student can carry weaker students–my own impression). The theory seems to be that in the humanities like reading and language arts, the high performing students should become role models for the others in a classroom and consequently they spend a lot of time marking time. Expectations don’t seem to be as great as they could be for the lower performing kids because that requires a lot of work on the part of all involved, and many kids have non-supportive parents.

    Those in policy positions ought to start intensively focusing on grades 5-9 because the opportunity to make great progress is there.

  • […] Petrilli makes a point and raises a question about progress in teaching math in Education Next and Fordham’s Flypaper.  One of the great mysteries of modern-day school reform is why […]

  • Jared Billings says:

    One explanation may be the difference of student buy-in at each level of schooling. High School students have learned that many “exams” they take are not attached to any immediate consequence and could simply not try.

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