The Older They Get, the Harder They Stall

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education released the results from the 2012 NAEP test for 12th graders.  Much like the outcomes in 2009, about one quarter of students (26 percent) scored proficient in math and about one in four (38 percent) scored proficient in reading. When these results are stacked up against our ambitions for the next generation of Americans as the leaders and strivers of tomorrow, these results are nothing short of disappointing.  Disaggregated by race, the results are downright scary. Only 12 percent of Hispanic and 7 percent of Black students are proficient in math. If three of every four high school graduates—and many more of our most disadvantaged students—aren’t proficient in geometry and algebra, how will our nation ever produce the engineers and businessmen, let alone informed citizens, we need to sustain our nation?

For better or worse, this flat performance of the oldest students runs counter to the trends of fourth and eighth graders, who have steadily grown in their rates of proficiency over the last decade. These younger students are still not performing to levels we need, but at least we can take comfort in the fact that, as a group, they are making progress.  Our educational system seems to have figured out a way to improve instruction sufficiently so that more and more students are able to achieve to the levels of performance. So, what happens to these gains?  Why are American students doing better when they’re younger and no better as they finish high school?

Some have speculated that the plateau is the result of demographic changes among the high school population, namely the fast increase in the proportion of of Hispanic students—who tend to score lower—and the declining dropout rate.  Both these trends would mean that there are a greater proportion of students taking the test who are more likely to do poorly and their numbers are dragging down the rest of the pool.  But a closer look reveals that this is not the case. Performance at both the 75th and 90th percentiles are also flat, so higher-performing students are also doing no better.

Instead, I think the answer is both simpler and far more complex. The simple part is that high school in America tends to operate with even more inertia than lower grades of education.  Change in the ways that the institution is organized—in everything from instructional methods to scheduling to the lack of cross-disciplinary learning—is glacially slow. The unchanged scores among high school seniors is merely a reflection of the fact that, for all intents and purposes, a high school education in this country looks very much like it did for the last few years (and decades).

The more complex aspect is figuring out a way to upset this dynamic: how do we get high school education to align more closely with the real needs of today’s students and tomorrow’s citizens and leaders? Many smart people and organizations have been focusing on this question for years, and a lot of good work has been done, so I certainly cannot claim to be any sort of expert on this question or even to pretend that any solutions I would propose are somehow unique.

Instead, I just want to point out one movement—an idea which relates to our work on time and learning most closely—that to me has great promise, even as it is incredibly complicated to implement. Namely, the move towards “proficiency-based” or “competency-based” education is one that prioritizes absolute learning and ability over the amount of time any individual student has spent in formal classes. The basic notion is that seat-time is a poor measure of learning—what matters is what students can actually demonstrate they know and can do.  That means that students would progress to the next unit or even next class only when they’ve demonstrated full mastery in particular topics.  If you play that out, it means that every student proceeds through high school essentially on their own timeline. For high schools, which now rely primarily on Carnegie Units and course credits, to determine student progress, such a shift would truly revolutionize the way education in secondary schools is both delivered and tracked. 

Obviously, given the current state of the lack of student proficiency, the shift to this more reality-based system cannot come soon enough. Here’s hoping that the underlying message of expanded-time schools—time is too valuable and powerful a resource to be treated as something that can be provided to all students in equal amounts—can seep into the world of high schools and bring much needed change.