Today’s Episode of Things We All Know Yet Are Not True: Our Schools Are DOOMED!

Surprisingly, it is found in Slate[/snark]. Intelligent Designer help me if I ever write a book which has a Grand Unifying Theory, since those typically lead to sloppy data analysis. Psychology professor Laurence Steinberg, who has a new book about the psychology of adolescents, writes this about U.S. education:

On the measure of academic engagement, the U.S. scored only at the international average, and far lower than our chief economic rivals: China, Korea, Japan, and Germany. In these countries, students show up for school and attend their classes more reliably than almost anywhere else in the world. But on the measure of social engagement, the United States topped China, Korea, and Japan.

In America, high school is for socializing. It’s a convenient gathering place, where the really important activities are interrupted by all those annoying classes. For all but the very best American students—the ones in AP classes bound for the nation’s most selective colleges and universities—high school is tedious and unchallenging. Studies that have tracked American adolescents’ moods over the course of the day find that levels of boredom are highest during their time in school.

Appealing hypotheses–students are bored–always bother me, because an obvious corollary is higher performing states should be less afflicted by the stated problem than poorly performing states. Maybe Massachusetts students are less bored than Alabama students. We could measure that (hypotheses are your friend), but, for now, I’m skeptical. But maybe Steinberg has other data? Well, let’s see (boldface mine):

Trends in achievement within the U.S. reveal just how bad our high schools are relative to our schools for younger students. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, administered by the U.S. Department of Education, routinely tests three age groups: 9-year-olds, 13-year-olds, and 17-year-olds. Over the past 40 years, reading scores rose by 6 percent among 9-year-olds and 3 percent among 13-year-olds. Math scores rose by 11 percent among 9-year-olds and 7 percent among 13-year-olds.

By contrast, high school students haven’t made any progress at all. Reading and math scores have remained flat among 17-year-olds, as have their scores on subject area tests in science, writing, geography, and history.

To the Mad Biologist, this is like chum in the water. Let’s leave aside approaching the test scores in terms of percentages (a very rough rule of thumb is that a ten point difference is equivalent to an additional grade level of learning, so that 3 percent increase among 13-year-olds is a grade level increase). Yes, national scores have remained flat among seventeen year-olds. But the composition of those seventeen year-olds has not. If we disaggregate the scores by ethnicity, we see a very different picture (note: in the figure below, the 250, 300, and 350 benchmarks can be translated to basic, proficient, and advanced; the data are for math):

(click here to embiggen)

In every ethnic group, from 1978 to 2012, the percentage of students who perform at level 250 or lower has decreased, while the the percentage of students who perform at level 300 or higher has increased (note that the below 250 students are not included in the figure). While there’s much work to be done, test scores have not remained flat.

Nice story though.

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