American Students Are Losing Ground in Major Subjects


Gazi Fuad

Sophomore students are fine tuning their reading ability by engaging in a deep study of ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’

Education persists in being a political lightning rod. The latest report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) stirs up controversy and raises many doubts about the quality of education in the United States.

The 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), an exam administered by the NCES, assessed 600,000 students from a variety of socioeconomic statuses across the country. The students who took the exam came from public and private schools across 27 urban school districts. The test scores of students across the country measure the “nation’s report card,” and unearthed that students in the United States are losing ground in mathematics and reading.

In mathematics, nine states experienced an increase in scores for fourth-graders while three states increased and three states declined for eight-graders. In reading, 17 states experienced a fall in scores for fourth-graders and 31 states for eight-graders. Overall, the proficiency of fourth-graders in reading dropped from 37% in 2015 to 35% in 2017, and proficiency of eighth-graders dropped from 36% to 34%, respectively.

Black, Hispanic, Native American and White students fared lower than previous years, while Asians scored around the same. The most vulnerable students who fall in the lowest 10th percentile of test-takers are losing ground with eight-graders in the bottom 10th percentile losing six points from 2017. The top 10th percentile only lost one point. The expanding disparity between the groups is said to be exacerbated by rising income inequality.

In a statement made by Secretary Betsy DeVos of the U.S. Department of Education, the nation’s report card reflects the failures of the “one-size-fits all system.” She underscores how funneling $1 trillion to public schools over forty years has not solved the problem. Ms. DeVos is also an advocate for school choice, which would mean students have the freedom to choose their school rather than attend their zoned school, and has rejected demands to increase funding for schools.

Prior to the release of the NAEP results, several education experts anticipated bleak results. “With the lingering effects of the Great Recession still serving as powerful headwinds against progress, it would have taken a miracle to see big gains at the national level,” said Michael J. Petrilli, President of the education think tank Thomas B. Fordham Institute, in an article with Education Next. In a study done by the Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis, researchers noted how the Great Recession put constraints on state and federal funding for education, reducing the number of teacher personnel in schools. Also, rising parental unemployment and declining income unfavorably affected student achievement.

On the other hand, many contend that the test was not a fair measure of how well students are actually performing in schools because public schools follow Common Core, which does not encompass the material on the NAEP. “The assessment creates an unfair ‘standard’ that is established by the test makers themselves,” said Fredrick Halo ’21.

The American education system falls short of education systems around the world. This is shown through the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures and compares the average test scores of 15-year-old students across the globe. The program tested 600,000 students with 4,800 of those from 215 US schools.

The highest scorers on the PISA were located in cities in China, like Beijing and Shanghai. The attitudes toward education in those places are more rigid than those in the United States, as many students work hours on end to achieve top scores. The school quality varies in the United States more than other nations.

These educational assessments, however, do not explain why test scores are falling and do not provide solutions on how the country’s education system should be rectified. Teacher unions attribute falling test scores to the cuts in funding. Others want to view schools as a market-based system rather than have it as a public good.

Fierce debate over how to advance public education for younger students remains a hot button issue.

The federal government has worked to ameliorate the public school education system by enacting federal mandates and programs, such as “No Child Left Behind,” “Race to the Top,” the “Common Cores State Standards,” and “Every Student Achieves Act.”

None of the programs have garnered more contention than Common Core, which receives backlash from both sides of the political aisle. The Left views the standardized testing Common Core damaging to students, while the Right perceives Common Core to be the federal government stepping on state rights.

The significant drop in reading scores can be linked to Common Core, as this curriculum promotes reading short passages rather than longer ones. Reading longer texts would help students capture nuances in the texts.

“Common Core is more based on teaching kids a specific way to do things, and it eliminates free thought. Kids that are more creative are strangled out of the system by specific rubrics that lead to uniformity,” said Tenzing Tsephel ’21.

 In spite of these dismal findings, Washington D.C. did make headway in terms of educational progress in the NAEP and was the only region to experience a significant rise in test scores. The jurisdiction adopted “cornerstones,” which promote experience-based learning of English skills. Other reforms include a school voucher program, paying teachers more, and grasping an understanding of students’ personal lives through home visits.

As politicians and education experts continue to clash over what the best direction is for education, the future of the United States rests on the shoulders of students, and a direct path to improving the education system remains murky.

Fierce debate over how to advance public education for younger students remains a hot button issue.