Gains Among Students Whose Parents Didn’t Finish High School

By Sean Cavanagh — May 01, 2009 2 min read

One interesting sign of academic progress on the latest “nation’s report card” results came among students who are presumably at a pretty serious disadvantage. Math scores for students who reported that their parents didn’t complete high school rose on the NAEP from 287 to 292, on a 500-point scale, the biggest jump of any student group, as measured by parents’ educational background. Overall, 17-year-olds’ scores were flat among students in every performance level.

By contrast, among students who said at least one parent had graduated from college, and those who said either mom or dad had “some education after high school,” math scores were flat. (Students with better-educated parents, on average, scored considerably higher than sons and daughters of high school non-completers.)

I’ll put the test results out there and pose the obvious question: Why are 17-year-olds whose parents didn’t make it through 12th grade making gains? One possibility I’ll put out for the sake of discussion: Could this be a trickle-up effect of No Child Left Behind? That law sought to bring more scrutiny to the the performance of minority and low-income students, particularly in elementary and middle school. Are those efforts paying off, as these students reach high school? Or are state-level education policies, such curricular improvements, if they created more focused math lessons in elementary and middle school, deserving of credit? Or is there some sort of out-of-school social policy at work here, which could be benefiting students from these backgrounds?

Among 13-year-olds whose parents did not finish high school, scores also rose, from 263 to 268, though that jump was not statistically significant. The scores among students in that age group with better-educated parents also climbed by a couple points in most categories, although those increases also were not statistically relevant. (All this can be found on Figure 12 of the NAEP long-term trends report.)

Overall, parents’ level of education has been improving since the late 1970s, according to the NAEP data. The percentage of students who reported that at least one parent had graduated from college increased from 32 percent to 46 percent during that time period. Similarly, the portion of 17-year-olds who said their parents top education level was having “graduated from high school,” fell from 33 percent to 19 percent. (See Appendix 2)

How do you interpret the progress among these (presumably disadvantaged) 17-year-olds?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.