The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores for 12th graders came out earlier this week, revealing stagnant growth overall and again exemplifying the need to focus on increasing equality of opportunity for low-income students, students of color, English language learners, and students with disabilities. The academic achievement of these student subgroups is consistently behind those of their white, wealthier peers, due largely to inequalities of school funding, access to highly qualified and effective teachers, and a failure to consistently help these students overcome the many challenges they often face outside the classroom.

NAEP scores for 12th graders are notorious for being unreliable, but if considered with a grain of salt one can examine trends in the scores. As a former member of the NAEP governing board (NAGB) points out, many seniors in high school know that this test does not count toward their grade or graduation (as so many other standardized tests do) so they do not take it seriously. Anyone who remembers their senior year of high school shouldn’t be surprised that seniors might figure out what to take seriously and what not to, but assuming this lack of effort on the part of some students is true for every year, comparing this year’s scores to previous years does reveal important trends.

Digging into the data we see that both average scores and the percentage of students scoring at or above proficient is unchanged in both reading and math since 2009. Achievement gaps between students of color and white students also remained unchanged, as did the gap between students with disabilities (6 percent proficient in math, 10 percent in reading) and their peers without disabilities (28 percent proficient in math, 40 percent in reading), and English language learners (3 percent proficient in math, 2 percent in reading) and their peers (26 percent in math, 39 percent in reading).

Additionally, this data again reveals that poverty has a negative impact on academic achievement. Comparing the percentage of low-income students enrolled in school in a state with that state’s percentage of 12th graders scoring at or above proficient on NAEP reveals an inverse relationship: the higher the percentage of students living in low-income families, the lower the percentage of students scoring at or above proficient (see graph below for math scores, a graph on reading scores looks very similar). This reconfirms what previous data has shown: the American education system often does not do enough to overcome the negative effects of poverty on a child’s education.


Unfortunately, none of these results are very surprising in light of the recent Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). This survey of every school district in the country reveals disparities in access to rigorous coursework, highly trained and experienced teachers, and school counselors, and disparate discipline rates. For example, the latest CRDC reveals that 3-4 percent of students of color (black, Latino, American Indian and Native-Alaskan students) attend schools with a high concentration of first-year teachers, while only 1 percent of white students attend these schools. Similarly, nearly 7 percent of black students attend a school where more than 20 percent of teachers are not certified, compared to only 1 percent of white students.

The CRDC also reveals that disparities in school suspension and expulsion, like academic achievement gaps, often begin before kindergarten. Black children make up only 18 percent of preschool enrollment, but 48 percent of preschool children suspended more than once. Black students are also suspended and expelled at three times the rate of white students in grades K-12. Not all schools offer rigorous coursework either. Only 50 percent of high schools offer calculus, and only 63 percent offer physics. A significant number of high schools also lack core academic courses: between 10 and 25 percent of high schools do not offer more than one of the core courses in a sequence of math or science education (for example, Algebra I and II, geometry, biology, and chemistry). Finally, 20 percent of high schools – one in five – do not have a school counselor.

To raise NAEP scores and improve academic outcomes for every student we should begin by addressing the issues revealed in the CRDC. All schools should have the resources they need to recruit and retain experienced, highly trained teachers and to offer both core and rigorous coursework. Instead of suspending or expelling students, schools should have counselors at the very least, and ideally they would also offer additional wrap-around services to address all the challenges students face. These NAEP scores are another reminder that we can do more for our students.