According to the latest scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 37% of American 12th-graders are academically prepared for college math and reading. These numbers mark a dip from two years early when an estimated 39% of high-schoolers were prepared academically.
The biggest declines in proficiency came at the bottom tier, with growth in the share of students "below basic" in their abilities. In 2013, 35% tested at "below basic" in math, whereas that number has increased to 38% today. This marks the first drop in math scores in a decade. In reading, the average score was 287 out of 500, considerably lower than the average score of 292 in 1992.
Furthermore, the average scores among students in the bottom 10th percentile, as reported by Lauren Camera of U.S. News, dropped precipitously by four points in math and six points in reading. The reading scores for these students hit its lowest level since the test began its assessment of students' abilities.
"These numbers aren't going the way we want," said Bill Bushaw, the executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, the organization that released the scores. "We just have to redouble our efforts to prepare our students to close opportunity gaps." The Education Department has also urged educators to double down on their efforts to prepare students for college effectively.
Policymakers and educators worry that students' lack of preparedness hampers their college education. Unprepared students who go to college often burn through their financial aid and waste time taking remedial classes that do not earn credits toward a degree.
The results of the report were demographically split as well. In reading and math, Asian students performed the best, with around 48% of them scoring above proficiency levels. White students scored next best, while black and Hispanic students scored at the lowest levels in reading and math. Only 12% of Hispanic and 7% of black students tested as either proficient or above in math, notes Leslie Brody of the Wall Street Journal.
The report did not contain all bad news, however. High school graduation rates are rising, and 42% of test-takers said they had been accepted into a four-year college. Additionally, the dropout rate has improved for every racial and ethnic group. The report also found students did worse on these tests if their parents had not received a high school education, a phenomenon that disproportionately affects students of color.
Additionally, officials at the Department of Education are cautioning against extrapolating bleak conclusions from these results. Despite sounding concern, the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, Peggy Carr, said that the drop in scores among students may be because more students are taking advanced level coursework, which is much more challenging. Moreover, since dropout rates are declining, the test was given to low-performing students who historically would not have even been in class, thus depressing the results.
The results of the 2015 assessment are based on a nationally representative sample of thousands of 12th-grade students from 740 schools, including private institutions.