Just 37% of U.S. High School Seniors Prepared for College Math and Reading, Test Shows

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By Leslie Brody April 27, 2016 12:01 a.m. ET

Only 37% of American 12th-graders were academically prepared for college math and reading in 2015, a slight dip from two years earlier, according to test scores released Wednesday.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” said that share was down from an estimated 39% in math and 38% in reading in 2013.

Educators and policy makers have long lamented that many seniors get diplomas even though they aren’t ready for college, careers or the military. Those who go to college often burn through financial aid or build debt while taking remedial classes that don’t earn credits toward a degree.

Bill Bushaw, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the test, said the board was pleased that high school graduation rates were rising, but disappointed in the lack of progress in boosting students’ skills and knowledge.

[EXCL’s comment– If what education is doing has failed – what will redoubling this same effort accomplish???]

Allen Epstein, President EXCL

“These numbers aren’t going the way we want,” he said. “We just have to redouble our efforts to prepare our students to close opportunity gaps.” 

At the time of the assessment, 42% of the test-takers said they had been accepted into a four-year college. The test is taken by a representative sample of seniors nationwide.

The biggest problems came at the bottom, with growth in the share of students deemed “below basic” in their abilities. In math, 38% of students were in that group in 2015, compared with 35% two years earlier. In reading, 28% of students were “below basic,” compared with 25%.

Peggy Carr, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which conducts the test, said officials couldn’t tie changes in scores to any particular education policies but demographic shifts may play a role. The dropout rate has improved for every racial and ethnic group, she said, so some struggling students who wouldn’t have taken the test in the past did so last year.

In reading, the average score of 287 out of 500 points was about flat from two years earlier, but down significantly from 292 in 1992, when the test was first given. Students who reported reading for fun every day or nearly that often tended to score higher.

In reading, “The students at the top of the distribution are going up and the students at the bottom of the distribution are going down,” said Ms. Carr.  “There is a widening of the gap between higher and lower-ability students.”

In reading, 49% of Asian students performed at or above proficiency last year. So did 46% of white students, 25% of Hispanic students and 17% of black students.

In math, the average score of 152 out of 300 points was one point lower than in 2013. A significant drop in math scores was seen among students whose parents didn’t finish high school.

“In math, the decline is real,” Ms. Carr said. “Students at the lower end are getting worse.”

English-language learners fared better than previously, she said, mostly because of gains among Asian students.

In math, 47% of Asian students performed at or above proficiency. So did 32% of white students, 12% of Hispanic students and 7% of black students.

Some educators have questioned whether seniors would do their best on a test that didn’t count toward graduation or college admission. Ms. Carr said motivation was hard to measure, but some indicators, such as the number of answers left blank, suggested the same level of student engagement as in previous years.

Write to Leslie Brody at leslie.brody@wsj.com