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Obama’s Education Hopes Face Achievement Realities

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

American students are spending more time in academic classes and checking the ‘more rigorous curriculum’ box. But there is little evidence that all that extra academic work has turned into higher achievement.

In his first speech to a joint session of Congress, President Barack Obama challenged Americans to increase their own investment in higher education. Calling this a “responsibility,” he asked every American “to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship.”

The president’s call responds to the fact that the United States is falling behind other nations in the percentage of Americans who are college educated. In the United States, 39 percent of adults between the ages of 25 and 34 have attained a postsecondary degree, placing us tenth among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries and twelfth when the four non-OECD “partner” economies are included. This level of postsecondary attainment shows no sign of improving across generations. For example, in 2006, approximately 39 percent of Americans aged 25–34 had attained a postsecondary degree—but this was less than the attainment rate of Americans aged 35–44 (41 percent) and aged 45–54 (40 percent). In contrast, in 17 other countries, the postsecondary attainment rate among those aged 25–34 was at least 5 percent higher than those aged 35–44. The president noted that the decline in America’s lead in higher education is a “prescription for economic decline, because we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”

How difficult will it be to meet the president’s challenge? There is some good news, but also evidence it will be challenging indeed.

The Good News

Spurred by the landmark 1983 report “A Nation at Risk” showing declining achievement in America’s schools, the country embarked on a campaign to improve the quality of our high schools. This campaign has been reinforced by other important studies and calls for action, many of which have been embodied in the standards and accountability movement that began at the state level and was codified at the federal level by the No Child Left Behind Act.

The good news: on one level, this effort has worked. America’s high school students have stepped up and taken more academic credits, and many more of them graduate having completed a more rigorous curriculum.

Consider the 2007 National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report, “America’s High School Graduates: Results from the 2005 NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] High School Transcript Study.” Among the most important findings was that in 2005, graduates earned about three credits more than their 1990 counterparts. This represents about 360 additional hours of instruction during their high school careers.

The report divides the curriculum students take into three levels, based on the number of credits and types of courses completed: standard, midlevel, and rigorous. Figure 1 shows the substantial growth in the percentage of students enrolling in more rigorous curricula. In 2005, almost half of all high school graduates completed more than a standard curriculum, up from around one-third in 1990. Although the Hispanic/white gap has been virtually unchanged, a gap of 6 percentage points between black and white high school graduates has disappeared since 1990.

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We get another piece of good news by comparing the immediate college enrollment rates of high school graduates using two of NCES’ longitudinal data sets, separated by about 20 years: the High School and Beyond Study of 1980 and the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002. Both of these studies began with a cohort of sophomore students, and then interviewed them two years later. Among the data the studies collected was college enrollment (including both two- and four-year colleges). Again, we see real progress in college enrollment rates. Figure 2 shows that, between 1982 and 2004, the immediate college enrollment of these two cohorts increased by over 40 percent, and by over 50 percent for black high school graduates.

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Together these are encouraging signs: high school students are taking more rigorous curricula, and many more of them are enrolling directly in postsecondary education. From these numbers, it would seem that the nation has laid the foundation to meet the president’s challenge.

The Bad News

While American high school students are spending more time in academic classes and checking the “more rigorous curriculum” box, there is little evidence that all that extra academic work has turned into higher achievement.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress’ Long Term Trend (LTT) assessments are the most significant tool we have to monitor the performance of American students over time. This assessment has been administered nationally every four years (more or less) since the early 1970s. The main advantage of LTT is the length of the time series and the use of the same framework since its inception. Keeping this framework is the result of a specific policy decision to present a consistent long-term view of the progress of American students in two key subjects.

Figure 3 documents the performance of American 17-year-olds over time in math. Since 1978, there has been virtually no movement in the overall trend line in math performance. We see some marginal changes in the performance of black and Hispanic students. Figure 4 shows a similar pattern in reading achievement.

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In short, despite a growing number of high school students taking more courses and decades of concern for American performance, our most consistent indicator of student performance, NAEP’s LTT study, shows that the achievement of our 17-year-olds, the age at which students are nearing or at the end of their high school education, has hardly changed.

The Ugly

The LTT data show how hard it will be to meet the president’s challenge. But there are other data that reinforce the difficulty.

By shifting the call from graduating from either a two-year or four-year college to completion of “at least one year of college,” and including vocational training and apprenticeships, the task is somewhat easier to achieve. But consider college graduation rates, both at two- and four-year institutions.

Table 1 reports the official graduation rates from two-year and four-year colleges. But because students need to graduate from high school in order to attend college, it also reports the Adjusted Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR) as calculated by NCES. Only about three-quarters of American high school students even complete high school on time. Official graduation statistics from two- and four-year colleges show even worse completion rates: two-year colleges graduate only around one-third of their students in three years, and four-year colleges graduate only around half of their students in six. There is also a clear racial and ethnic dimension to low completion rates: black and Hispanic students complete every level of education at much lower rates than whites.

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Rising to the Challenge

In response to the earlier challenge outlined in “A Nation at Risk,” the nation’s high school students are doing the right thing—they are taking more courses and completing a more rigorous curriculum. But this has not translated into higher achievement or high graduation rates, either at the secondary or the postsecondary level.

A reasonable assumption is that there has been course title “inflation,” and that while increasing numbers of students take, for example, algebra II or calculus, the quality of courses with the same title varies widely. So while students seem to have taken a more rigorous curriculum based on course titles, the quality of the courses in that curriculum may be far from rigorous.

We know that in lower grades, states vary widely in their standards and definitions of proficiency. In 2007, NCES explored variation in state proficiency standards and found, for example, that in eighth-grade reading, not one state’s proficiency standard was equal to NAEP’s, and in eighth-grade math, only three states had proficiency standards equal to NAEP’s. According to work done by the Fordham Foundation, states engage in an “accountability illusion” as well as a “proficiency illusion.”

In short, using arcane rules and various strategic choices, states claim both that the student body is highly proficient and that accountability standards are being met. But at the elementary and middle-school level, we know this is not the case.

The appearance of increasing rigor of high school studies and the lack of pay-off suggests that meeting the president’s challenge will require a more radical rethinking of the nation’s approach to high schools, increasing scrutiny of curricula, and assistance to states in developing rigorous standards. Education Secretary Arne Duncan recognizes this. He said, “I think we are lying to children and families when we tell children that they are meeting standards and, in fact, they are woefully unprepared to be successful in high school and have almost no chance of going to a good university and being successful.”

Absent badly needed reforms, the president’s call for more enrollment in higher education will likely continue a pattern of easy fixes, such as curriculum inflation, without real gains in college graduation or the nation’s human capital.

Mark Schneider is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and vice president at the American Institutes for Research. From 20052008, he served as commissioner of education statistics at the U.S. Department of Education.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/The Bergman Group.

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