Regressive Education

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Amid the current idolization of teenagers’ political activity, it may be interesting to consider the latest report on American students’ intellectual proficiency. It’s the results of tests conducted on the reading and math skills of eighth graders for the National Assessment of Educational Progress in the US Department of Education.

One reason the dismal results of these tests have received little attention since they were announced on April 10 is that people just don’t seem to care what their tax money is doing, or not doing. Another reason is that the data are presented in on the NAEP website in a bafflingly complicated way. One useful summary appears in an item on the conservative news site CNS. There’s no conservative spin in the story; there doesn’t need to be. The fact is as simple as CNS puts it: “Sixty-five percent of the eighth graders in American public schools in 2017 were not proficient in reading and 67 percent were not proficient in mathematics.”

There follow graphs of the performance of students in various states and public school districts — reading proficiency in Los Angeles, 23%; in Detroit, 7%; and so on.

One reason the dismal results of these tests have received little attention is that people just don’t seem to care what their tax money is doing, or not doing.

But what does reading proficiency mean? In terms used by the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, “Eighth-grade students performing at the Proficient level should be able to provide relevant information and summarize main ideas and themes. They should be able to make and support inferences about a text, connect parts of a text, and analyze text features. Students performing at this level should also be able to fully substantiate judgments about content and presentation of content.”

I should note that this standard is far too high for the Washington Post. But it does seem appropriate for students who are about to enter high schools where they are encouraged to become political activists; i.e., encouraged to think that because of their ability to read and reason, they can start telling other people how to live.

Well, but maybe something good happens to them between grade 8 and high school? No. Even the Voice of America’s bland presentation brings disturbing news on this front. It indicates that proficiency tends to decline with schooling:

About 40 percent of 4th graders were found to be proficient in reading and math. The report found just 25 percent of 12th grade students had math proficiency, while 37 percent reached that level in reading.

In science, 38 percent of 4th graders were rated proficient, while about 34 percent of 8th graders demonstrated proficiency.

It costs something to promote this ignorance. The NCES data show that California (to cite one example) spends $70.5 billion on its public schools, or about $11,300 for each student. The result is that only 32% of its eighth graders are proficient in reading, and only 29% are proficient in math.

But maybe something good happens to them between grade 8 and high school? No.

So maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the students are smarter than their elders, after all. The elders pay their useless taxes without demur, but I doubt that even the student leaders would be willing to plunk down 11 grand a year for the education that fits them for their public roles.

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