Urban Institute Report Aims to See Why High School Progress Stalls

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

Despite the considerable increase in the academic achievement of elementary and middle school students since the 1990s, efforts to improve the academic quality of schools across the country have tended to leave out high schools.

While federal accountability policies require testing to be done in math and reading for students between third and eighth grades, the same exams are only required to be completed once in high school even though these schools are held accountable for increasing graduation rates.

The Urban Institute report “Varsity Blues: Are High School Students Being Left Behind?” takes a closer look at this issue using student-level data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), otherwise known as the nation’s report card.  The results of nationally representative math and reading exams are used to determine why the academic gains made in elementary and middle school are not carried through the high school years.

The data suggests that stagnant achievement among high school students occurs.  Researchers observed the phenomenon across various versions of the NAEP, as well as other achievement tests, and said it does not seem to change as a result of who is taking the test, flaws in test design, or a decline in student effort.

The study takes a closer look at four hypotheses that attempt to answer the question of why high school students are obtaining lower scores on their NAEP exams than elementary and middle school students.

The first, the cohort adjustment, suggests that not enough time has passed for the gains of younger students to appear when the same individuals are tested as high school students.  The idea states that cohorts of students should be tracked as they pass through grades rather than looking at achievement level changes by test date.  The authors suggest that more research is needed in order to determine if this theory holds any value.

The marginal-graduate hypothesis states that increasing high school persistence and graduation rates are causing 12th-grade scores to go down as a result of an increase in students who do not graduate.  These students do not graduate and are then included in the next set of 12th grade scores.  However, researchers maintain that the shift in scores as a result of this is very small.

The senioritis hypothesis suggests that today’s students are not taking the NAEP test as seriously as previous sets of students did.  While evidence does exist suggesting students perform better when they have incentive to, not enough data exists to assess how student effort has evolved throughout time.

The final hypothesis, measurement, suggests that test design and administration are not allowing an accurate picture of changes in high school achievement to be captured.  However, the researchers say this is not the case, pointing to international assessments where results are mirroring those occurring in the United States.

Researchers suggest a number of improvements be made to the NAEP, such as the regular assessment of high school students both nationwide and in each individual state.  They go on to push for the renewed focus on the part of researchers and policymakers toward high schools in order to make sure that the academic gains made in elementary and middle school don’t come to an end.