Assessment Opinion

Are We Just Fooling Ourselves? Is American Education a Colossal Failure?

By Marc Tucker — April 16, 2015 7 min read
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In their magisterial book The Race Between Education and Technology, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz tell us how the United States led the world in educational attainment from the middle of the 19th century well into the second half of the 20th century. They show how this accomplishment led to the United States having the best workforce in the world through much of the 20th century and how that fact became a major source of our economic, political and social success.

And then it all came to an end. Since then, other nations have exceeded us in attainment levels (which is to say that the average worker in those countries now has more years of education under his or her belt than the average worker in the United States).

The ground shifted under us in the 1970s and we did not shift with it. When virtually all of the advanced industrial countries had reached high levels of attainment, the focus went from the quantity of education a worker has to the quality of education that worker has. That was when the United States went from world leader in education to world laggard among the industrialized nations.

The numbers are very clear. It was in the 1970s that the United States began to measure what our students had learned in school, with the National Assessment of Educational Progress. What it shows is that, from the 1970s to the present day, there has been no meaningful improvement in the average educational achievement of American high school students in English or mathematics.

But no improvement is not by itself fatal. The question is how that performance relates to the performance of high school students in the other industrialized countries. The answer is provided by the OECD PISA studies of student performance in reading, mathematics and science. That performance is mediocre, at best. Like the NAEP, the PISA data show that American performance since 2000, when the first PISA surveys were done, to the present, has been flat to slightly down. But other countries have been exceeding our performance in ever-increasing numbers. The United States now places #24 in reading, #36 in mathematics and #28 in science in the most recent PISA league tables, among the 65 nations participating in the survey. A significant number of the countries participating in the survey are poor countries and some of those countries among the top ten in student performance were very poor countries as recently as 30 years ago.

However, though NAEP tells us about the academic skills of future workers, it does not measure the skills of current workers. We now have a way of doing that. The Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), operated by the OECD, now does a periodic survey of working-age adults in many countries, including the United States. ETS recently did a careful analysis of the PIAAC scores of US millennials, adult workers between the ages of 16 and 34. The results were appalling. The US millennials scored lower than all but three other countries in literacy, last in mathematics and second from the bottom in technical problem-solving. Even more troubling, the scores of our millennials had actually gone down since the last assessment.

A few years ago, the National Center on Education and the Economy researched the actual demands of a typical community college first year curriculum. Here is what we found. First-year community college textbooks are written at a 12th-grade level. But many, perhaps a majority, of community college students cannot comprehend them. Because that is so, their teachers prepare PowerPoint summaries, so that they will at least get the gist. The reason they cannot read them is that the typical high school text is written at the 7th-or 8th-grade level, four to five grade levels below the community college text, which is itself written at one grade level below where it should be. It was not always this way. There was a time when 12th-grade texts were the texts that 12th-grade students used.

We found that the initial credit-bearing course in mathematics for most community colleges is a course called College Mathematics. But when we analyzed the texts for those courses, it turned out that most of the topics covered are normally associated with Algebra I, with a few topics from trigonometry and geometry. The only mathematics that is really needed to be successful in a first-year community college course is elementary school and middle school mathematics. But a very large fraction of high school graduates, perhaps a majority, are unable to do the work required in a typical college math course. Which is to say that they are not able to do middle school mathematics.

You might suppose, as we did, that the students going from our high schools to our four-year colleges would know and be able to do more than those going to our community colleges. We called ACT for the answer. ACT keeps track of what scores students need to get on the ACT test to have a high probability of getting an A or B in their first-year credit bearing college courses. ACT told us that they can see no difference in the ACT scores needed to have high probability of getting an A or B average in the first year courses in community college and four-year colleges. The score is the same. That told us that the challenge level of the first year courses in typical community college and the typical four-year college is the same. That makes it very likely that everything I just told you about the college readiness of students entering community college holds true for four-year college students, too. Their entering freshmen would have the same problems reading texts written at the 12th-grade level and would have the same challenges doing middle school mathematics.

But, surely, you say, once a high school graduate has been admitted to college, they learn something of value that increases their productivity in the workplace! Why else would employers be willing to pay college graduates ever more than high school graduates? It could be that the answer to that question is that employers will pay more just to get someone who made the effort to go to college and passed the very low screen of the college admissions process. I say that because a research project done a few years ago that measured gains in critical thinking, analytic reasoning and other higher level skills taught on college campuses might give you pause. It found that 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college. Thirty-six percent “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college. “Students who did show improvement showed only modest improvement.” Then the authors rhetorically asked themselves how much students are actually learning in higher education. Their reply: “not much.”

Consider the following summary of what I just told you. Whereas students in the 12th grade used to read at the 12th-grade level, our reading experts tell us that a large fraction, probably a majority, of our high graduates read at 7th-or 8th-grade level now. Similarly, we have learned that the same high school graduates are not being asked to do high school math in our open-admissions colleges and many other colleges because they cannot do it, and are having a hard time with middle school math when they get to college. The only possible conclusion is that the majority of our college students are not actually doing college level work, but are actually doing high school level work in college, and many of those are having a hard time mastering what used to be a high school curriculum. Further, we have learned that when our high school graduates go to college, they typically gain little or nothing in their mastery of skills of great importance to employers, skills that always lead the list of things that colleges also value highly. Could it be that a large fraction of college graduates do not graduate college with skills any higher than those that high school graduates in college-bound tracks used to possess? Could it be that many community colleges and even four-year colleges are really offering what used to be a high school college-bound curriculum and many college students cannot even successfully complete that?

If that is so, it would go a long way toward explaining the slowdown in wage growth in the United States. Why should employers pay a lot more for college graduates who can only do what high school graduates used to be able to do? In my next blog, I will share with you my hunches about why this apparent collapse of standards has occurred. In the one that follows that, I will have something to say about what I think needs to be done about it.

The opinions expressed in Top Performers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.