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Fewer US Students Are Ready for College

In this April 19, 2016 photo, Laurie Millan, a para-professional and tutor, works with a student during an after school tutoring session at San Francisco International High School, in San Francisco.
In this April 19, 2016 photo, Laurie Millan, a para-professional and tutor, works with a student during an after school tutoring session at San Francisco International High School, in San Francisco.
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Fewer high school students in the United States were ready for college in 2015, say recent test results.

Only 37 per cent of seniors scored at or above proficiency level in reading. The number of seniors scoring at or above the proficiency level for mathematics fell to 25 per cent.

The test is called the National Assessment for Educational Progress, or NAEP. It is also known as the Nation’s Report Card.

The U.S. Department of Education has used this test to measure the ability of students in several subjects across the country since 1969.

The Education Department collected the scores of 13,200 students for the 2015 mathematics test and 18,700 students for the reading test. The department released the results of those two tests in April.

The results showed that average mathematics scores have changed little over the past 10 years. But they also showed the average reading score has decreased 5 points since 1992.

The National Assessment Governing Board is the organization that administers the test. Bill Bushaw is the executive director of the organization. He told the Wall Street Journal that he was unhappy with the lack of progress in increasing the skills and knowledge of students.

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

The test is scored into four different levels: below basic, basic, proficient and advanced. But the level that officials consider to be college ready is not completely clear. Andrew Ho is a measurement expert who works at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

He also helps manage the Nation’s Report Card. Ho told National Public Radio that being college-ready means scoring somewhere between proficient and basic. "This is the [major] problem of standards," Ho said. "You can come up with a different and seemingly defensible standard every day over coffee."

But, Ho said, the Nation’s Report Card is the best test for examining how the average student in the U.S. performs. Unlike state tests, all students take the same national test and face the same standards. None are trained on how to take the test.

This means officials can measure the skills and knowledge of students rather than their test-taking abilities.

One major concern is that high schools are not demanding enough from their students. Despite the decrease in test scores, the Education Department reported the high school graduation rate in America was 82 percent in 2015. This is the highest graduation rate ever.

“If you get right down to it, the reading and math required by NAEP, the ACT, the SAT, colleges and careers is much greater than what high schools are saying is sufficient," Ho told NPR.

Another issue is that the number of students scoring at the “below basic” level is increasing. The number of students scoring below basic in math increased from 35 percent to 38 percent between 2013 and 2015. The number of students who scored below basic in reading also increased 3 percentage points to 28 percent in 2015.

Peggy Carr is the acting director for National Center for Educational Statistics, the part of the Education Department in charge of the test. She told the Wall Street Journal that officials think that the lower numbers are not connected to education policies, but to the number of students who are staying in high school. Carr said more students who were at risk of leaving high school without graduating took the test this year.

This means more students with histories of poor performance had their abilities measured. Testing more of this type of student may be why the number of students performing at the lower end increased, she suggested.

“There is a widening of the gap between higher and lower-ability students,” Carr said.

Students are not able to use their scores toward the college admissions process the way they do with SAT and ACT scores. That is why some educators claim that students do not try their best on this test. Carr told the Wall Street Journal that the motivation of students is hard to measure. But things like the number of answers left blank shows the level of student interest is the same as in past years. At the time of the test, 42 percent of test-takers said they had been accepted into a four-year college.

I’m Jill Robbins.

Pete Musto reported and wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

Now it’s your turn. How prepared for college are high school students in your country? Does your country provide nationwide tests to measure students’abilities? Let us know in the comments section or on our Facebook page.


Words in This Story

seniorn. US a student in the final year of high school or college

proficiencyn. ability to do something well

report cardn. a written statement of a student's grades that is given to the student's parents (the "Nation's Report Card" is a report to the citizens about how the public schools perform)

administerv. to manage the operation of (something, such as a company or government)

opportunity gapn. the ways in which race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, English proficiency, community wealth, familial situations, or other factors contribute to or perpetuate lower educational aspirations, achievement, and attainment for certain groups of students

basic adj. forming or relating to the first or easiest part of something

advancedadj. far along in a course of progress or development

standardn. a level of quality, achievement, etc., that is considered acceptable or desirable

defensibleadj. able to be thought of as good or acceptable

graduationn. the act of receiving a diploma or degree from a school, college, or university

ACTabbr. A test used to test high school students for college admissions in the U.S.; originally an abbreviation of the name “American College Testing”

SAT – abbr. A test widely used for college admissions in the U.S.; originally called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, then the Scholastic Assessment Test

sufficientadj. having or providing as much as is needed

motivationn. a force or influence that causes someone to do something