Connecting the Dots on Long-Term Achievement Trends

On Thursday, the Nation’s Report Card (the nickname for the National Assessment of Educational Progress from the U.S. Dept. of Ed.) released a new study describing the long term trends of scores on reading and math tests for 9, 13 and 17 year olds.  In short, the trends that have been established for the last few years have continued. For both 4th and 8th graders, in both subjects, scores have improved consistently for all groups over the last forty years. The increases aren’t dramatic, just slow, steady rises that make it such that 4th and 8th graders in 2011 are essentially a half-grade ahead of where they were a few decades ago in reading and a full grade in math.  Aside from these aggregate scores, the data also show that score gaps between White and Black and between White and Hispanic students have narrowed.  In other words, Blacks and Hispanics are gaining in achievement faster than Whites, though they still lag behind.
Now, of course, there is much noise and variability beneath these national results, but these trends do seem to suggest that, despite all the anxiety, public schools are actually doing a better job overall than they used to at enabling students to achieve.  All the complexity that is involved in setting high standards, developing high-quality curricula, strengthening instructional quality, and other large-scale efforts to improve American public education are, these results indicate, paying off.  
And, yet, these same outcomes also point to a troubling stagnation of the achievement of 17-year olds.  How can it be that with all the progress we’ve seen in elementary and middle schools these advances seem to fritter away by high school?  There are no simple answers, but let me propose just one possible reason why it may be that it is so hard to sustain achievement gains into the later school career.  This reason can be summed up in one word: relevance. Let me explain.
As students get older, they become, obviously, more sophisticated about the world around them. As their depth of understanding grows, so does the likelihood that individual students come to question the real value in their own lives of learning algebraic equations or interpreting poetry, for example. I’m not trying to argue that their doubt is justified in a broad sense—these math and reading skills are essential to a successful life and career—only that schools don’t always do a great job of explaining and showing how these skills are essential. The academic content seems, well, academic.  Or, in the parlance of teenagers, boring and without value.
But, thankfully, there are a growing number of high schools out there that are beginning to crack this nut, as it were. NCTL recently released a study profiling five schools that bridge the world inside of school and the world beyond by building in internships and other school-community connections right in to the standard curriculum.  They show students in very real ways just how knowing algebra or being a sharp reader can help solve problems outside the school walls.  Instantly, their education becomes a means to understand their own lives better—it holds value. And, of course, such opportunities are made possible, in part, because these schools have the time to engage in them.
I don’t pretend that we’ll solve this problem of adolescent disengagement overnight or that these types of schools can turn the tide all on their own, but they can be a key piece of the puzzle. And, for us at NCTL, knowing that schools are unlikely to embed and develop these types of programs unless they have they time to do so is why we continue to push for expanded time as that vital first step.