America's Report Card: We're still ignoring low-income high-achievers

Last week, the Department of Education released the 2015 Nation’s Report Card for twelfth graders. As with the fourth- and eighth-grade scores provided last fall, there was little to celebrate. In the core subjects of math and reading, average scores held firm at the same unimpressive level they’ve been at since 2009. The scores of low-performers—whether defined as the proportion of students “below Basic” or those in the bottom decile—actually declined for the first time in at least a decade.

There was one glimmer of good news: High-end reading scores (whether defined as the top decile or the percentage of students at NAEP’s “Advanced” level) rose by a statistically significant margin—the first time that’s happened since 1998. Indeed, this qualified as only the second such upward bump ever for high-end twelfth graders. (Since 1990, there has never been a statistically significant jump at the high end in math or science for high school seniors.)

Moreover, this year’s high-end reading gains occurred despite all other scores (average and low-end reading and math, as well as high-end math) being down or flat across all core subjects in the fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades. That fact that is itself rather unusual. High-end fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores, for example, have jumped three times since 2002. And high-end math scores in those same grades have increased steadily for the last twenty-five years—except in 2015. So this year’s twelfth-grade reading scores are one of the few rays of sunshine amidst otherwise cloudy skies.

Unfortunately, nobody really has any idea what caused this modest jump. It could just be one of those occasional, inexplicable blips that occur from time to time in NAEP scores. And we can’t count on its staying power. Following the aforementioned 1998 increase, high-end reading scores dropped in 2002 (the next time seniors were assessed) and stayed at that diminished level through 2013. That could happen again.

Also on the unfortunate side of the achievement ledger, this boost in high-end reading scores was accompanied by statistically significant score declines at the low-end in both reading and math, widening the achievement gap at a time when the main policy focus is on narrowing it. It’s well known that the country’s twelfth-grade results have generally been stuck at far too low a level for far too long. Nor is it news that three decades of education reform have scarcely moved the needle on high school achievement. (There has been some improvement in graduation rates, which may actually dampen overall achievement—as might changing demographics, along with the Great Recession and its aftermath).

The main message from the twelfth-grade NAEP results, taking into account upward and downward blips in the trend line, is that nothing is going well enough: The average isn’t moving, far too many kids are scoring on the low end—nowhere near “college- or career-ready”—and far too few of our young people are making it into the ranks of the high-scorers. And if you don’t like (or believe) NAEP, observe that its message is confirmed from multiple directions. Look at glum PARCC scores. Depressing PISA results. Achieve’s recent report on college readiness.

We are particularly concerned with what’s happening at the high end. There we find not only far too few students reading (or doing math) at the top level, but also a reprehensible shortage of poor and minority youngsters within the ranks of those who do. A mere 2 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch reached the Advanced level in twelfth-grade reading last year, versus 8 percent who aren’t eligible (i.e., who are not so poor); in twelfth-grade math, it’s 1 percent versus 4 percent. Likewise, twelfth-grade black and Hispanic students reach NAEP’s highest reading ranks at rates of 1 and 2 percent, respectively (versus 9 percent of white kids and 10 percent of Asian kids). In twelfth-grade math, only 1 percent of Hispanic youngsters do so, and the percentage for black students rounds to zero (it’s 3 and 9 percent for white and Asian students respectively). The picture is much the same in the fourth and eighth grades.

The “excellence gap,” then, is really two gaps. First, it means not enough high-achievers to assure the nation’s long-term economic competitiveness, security, and cultural vitality. Second, it means not nearly enough disadvantaged kids reaching that level, suggesting not even a modicum of equal opportunity. And so poor kids are denied a shot at upward mobility, which many of them are perfectly capable of pulling off—if only the education system would teach them what they’re ready and able to learn.

Yet the excellence gap—both excellence gaps—are widely ignored by policy makers, education leaders, and pundits. Even NAEP itself paid almost no attention last week to what its data showed about achievement (and demographics) at the high end. The National Assessment Governing Board’s otherwise excellent infographic on the new twelfth-grade data focused exclusively on what it showed about performance at the low end. You need to dig deep into the data yourself to find the other story.

The Education Department has displayed similar neglect as it has commenced its “negotiated rulemaking” process, which seeks to develop regulations for implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The department’s panel of experts proposed regulations to govern assessments; but in the many pages of seven-issue papers that accompanied those discussions, the team never addressed gifted education (aside from one mention of “above-grade-level” testing). That’s a huge shame, since many of the regulations will affect the K–12 system’s handing of high-achievers for years to come. (Fortunately, a revved up congressional oversight process is watching the department like a hawk, understandably worried that the executive branch will do all it can to keep things moving in pre-ESSA directions.)

One move that would help with the high school problem—and perhaps, in time, with twelfth-grade results—would be for both branches of government to agree that those results need to be reported at the state level, as has long been done for fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math. ESSA is trying to shift policy leadership back to the states, and “college- and career-ready” is the mantra on almost everybody’s lips, but states are running off in all directions when it comes to the assessments that they’re using.  The absence of state-level twelfth-grade NAEP results (at least in reading and math, and ideally in other core subjects) is therefore a major disservice to the country. Yes, it’ll require a bigger sample of twelfth graders sitting for NAEP. Yes, it’ll cost a little more. Maybe it should start as a “pilot” for interested states (and maybe they should help pay for it), as was the case both with fourth- and eighth-grade state data in the 1990s and, more recently, with the big-city version of NAEP known as “TUDA”. But we really need to get going with it. 

Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Brandon Wright is Editorial Director at the Fordham Institute.

Editor's note: This is part of a series of blog posts that is collaboratively published every week by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and National Association for Gifted Children. Each post in the series exists both here on the NAGC Blog and on Fordham's Flypaper