Participants in tomorrow’s economy have an uneven grasp of many of the core principles that govern fiscal policy, financial markets, and international trade, national test results released today show.
Just 42 percent of U.S. 12th graders scored at or above the “proficient” level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in economics knowledge, the first time that subject has been tested under the heavily scrutinized federal program.
Students who achieve a proficient score on the NAEP test in economics, which was administered last year, could recognize a relatively broad set of concepts and relationships dealing with the market economy, the national economy, and the international economy—the three main areas covered on the exam. A test-taker at that level, for instance, can explain the relationship between shortages and market prices, and use data in charts and graphs to analyze economic data or describe economic trends, federal officials explained.
Seventy-nine percent of students scored at or above the “basic” level, which shows they can recognize a relatively limited set of economic concepts and relationships—such as the link between market prices of products and what buyers can afford. Only a small proportion of test-takers, 3 percent, reached “advanced,” the highest level, demonstrating a more extensive understanding of economic principles.
Darvin M. Winick, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets NAEP policy, drew a connection between the test results and students’ grasp of other subjects.
“While there is clear room for improvement, the results are not discouraging,” Mr. Winick said in a statement. “Given the number of students who finish high school with a limited vocabulary, not reading well, and weak in math, the results may be as good as or better than we should expect.”
Economics is a required course in about one-third of states, governing-board officials said. In a survey, 87 percent of test-takers taking part in the economics NAEP said they had received some kind of exposure to economics content. Sixteen percent reported they had taken advanced economics; the greatest proportion, 49 percent, said they had taken general economics; 11 percent said they had taken a business or personal-finance class; 12 percent said they had been enrolled in some kind of combined economics course; and 13 percent said they had not taken any economics course.
Those coursetaking patterns were similar among students in urban, midsize, and rural areas. Students in rural areas, however, were less likely to have taken advanced economics than those in more populated communities, the survey shows.
By one measure, students’ exposure to economics has risen over time. A recent federal transcript study showed that the percentage of high school graduates who have taken an economics class increased from 49 percent in 1982 to 66 percent in 2005. Only courses that were clearly related to economics were included in that study, which was separate from the recent economics exam.
As is usually the case with NAEP, the percentage of students answering individual questions correctly varied greatly from item to item. For instance, 63 percent of students understood that a decrease in worldwide oil production would likely result in a decline in economic growth in oil-importing countries.
Yet just 36 percent of students knew that a personal income tax is the largest source of tax revenue for the federal government—as opposed to property, sales, or corporate-income taxes. And when asked how an increase in real interest rates would affect the amount of money that people would borrow, only 33 percent of test-takers could offer a correct written response: less money, because borrowing becomes more expensive.
The NAEP in economics was given to a nationally representative sample of 11,500 seniors from both public and private schools. The test will be given again in 2012, and when those results are released, it will allow for a comparison between the two sets of scores.