A new report card on America's schoolchildren has sounded an alarm bell, underscoring just how far many of the nation's students fall short.
The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress from the U.S. Department of Education shows that many high school seniors are graduating unable to read at grade level, and one in four cannot read at even the most basic level.
"This is an education electrocardiogram, and what it says is we're not making progress fast enough, and this patient needs to be shocked into life," said Bob Wise, the former governor of West Virginia who now is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education.
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Fifty-two thousand high school seniors nationwide took the exam last year. The average score actually was up two points since 2005, but it's still four points below 1992. Math scores also were up slightly.
"I find it difficult to get excited about a two-point increase," said Ronald Ferguson, director of Harvard's Achievement Gap Initiative. "I'm happy that it didn't go down, but I don't see any reason to expect that it should have gone down."
Education Secretary Arne Duncan seemed to agree in a prepared statement released today.
"Today's report suggests that high school seniors' achievement in reading and math isn't rising fast enough to prepare them to succeed in college and careers," he said.
Looking more closely at the numbers, the picture is even more sobering.
Just 38 percent of 12th graders were proficient in reading, and only 26 percent were proficient in math. The latest report also found that the scores of black and Latino 12th graders lagged behind those of whites and Asians.
"There's a long way to go," said David Driscoll, who serves on the National Assessment Governing Board. "We have to worry about this gap because even though some kids are performing well, whole groups of kids are not."
Earlier this month, another NAEP report showed further evidence of a racial achievement gap. In that study, only 12 percent of African-American boys in 4th grade were proficient in math or reading, compared to 38 percent of their white counterparts who were proficient in reading and 44 percent proficient in math.
Those problems remain despite years of effort from President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act aimed at eliminating the achievement gap by 2014.
"That gap is a big gap, and recent numbers suggest that gap has not changed," said Ferguson.
The new report also found that 86 percent of high school seniors said they expected to graduate college, ironic given that the data indicates many of those students aren't even performing at the high school level, much less prepared to go to college.