The news on student achievement in the United States is mixed. A 38-country study conducted by the International Study Center at Boston College revealed that while some U.S. schools and students are the best in the world, a world-class education is not available to all children. This fact is reflected in overall student achievement, which has declined since 1996.
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP):
- Only 36% of 12th graders demonstrate reading skills at or above a proficient level (the NAEP definition of proficiency includes demonstrating understanding of a text’s inferential and literal information, and the ability to extend the ideas of the text by making inferences and connections to personal experiences and other readings).
- Only 17% of 12th graders demonstrate math skills at or above a proficient level (the NAEP definition of proficiency includes demonstrated understanding of algebraic, statistical, and geometric and spatial reasoning).
When the NAEP data is disaggregated, an achievement gap along racial and socioeconomic lines emerges. African American and Latino students, and students from low-income families are almost twice as likely as their well-to-do and white peers to have skills below a basic level.
Improving student achievement in America’s high schools is an issue of excellence and equity. Research reveals that when learning is challenging, students achieve at higher levels. Some educators argue that giving all students more demanding subject matter sets most up for failure. However, the opposite is true; findings of the High Schools That Work Initiative and other researchers reveal that students of all abilities are more likely to succeed in higher-level courses and fail in lower-level ones.
As for the myth that student achievement has as much (or more) to do with a student’s racial and socioeconomic background as with the quality of instruction, it is just that—a myth. Schools and school districts across the country have closed the achievement gap by making high-level, college preparatory courses mandatory for all students. However, nationwide only one half or fewer African American and Latino students take such courses compared to nearly two-thirds of their peers.
When it comes to student achievement there are two certainties: students can do better when given the opportunity and support; and perpetuating a system where so many students are under achieving risks a generation of learners who are not ready for college and are ill-prepared to contribute to a strong economic future.