America’s long slide in K-12 achievement continues

Marty Rochester


In 2016, then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump commented: “At the state and federal level, the United States spends more than $620 billion dollars on K-12 education each year. That’s an average of about $12,296 for every student enrolled in our elementary and secondary public schools. We spend more per student than almost any other major country in the world. And we’re doing very poorly…”

The president often gets his facts wrong, but not in this case. Despite round after round of “school reform” over the past 40 years, along with a doubling of per pupil spending, our schools remain mired in mediocrity. Growing school budgets over time have failed to produce noticeably better academic performance. Obviously, this is not an indictment of all teachers and all schools — there are many outstanding individual instructors and institutions — but of U.S. precollegiate education as a whole.

Let’s look at the latest data.

Education Week (Oct. 17) reported: “The newest batch of ACT scores [the standardized tests used for college admissions] shows troubling long-term declines in performance.”

Students’ math achievement reached a 20-year low, as the average math score for the graduating class of 2018 was 20.5 [on a 36-point scale].

“While the trends in ACT math were worrisome, the scores in English didn’t offer much cause for celebration, either,” the report said. “The average score for the class of 2018 was 20.2, the same as five years ago, and down half a point from the English score high in 2007.”

And this occurred despite a significant drop in the number of test-takers, which ordinarily has the effect of increasing test scores. ACT correlates scores with students’ likelihood of earning B’s or C’s in credit-bearing college coursework.

“Increasing numbers of students are falling short. Only four in 10 met the math benchmark, the lowest level since 2004, and down from 46 percent in 2012. Six in 10 met the English benchmark, the lowest level since the benchmarks were introduced in 2002,” the report continued.

Keep in mind that, given well-documented grade inflation in higher education, a B or C today is not what it used to be, making the ACT results even more worrisome.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP),  called “the nation’s report card,” is administered periodically by the U.S. Department of Education to a representative sample of public school students across the country in various subjects in grades four, eight and 12. In 2017, barely a third of students were “proficient” in reading in all three grades tested. In the latest assessment, only 40 percent of fourth-graders were proficient in math, 34 percent of eighth-graders and 25 percent of 12th-graders. The statistics, not surprisingly, were even worse in inner-city schools, with, for example, Detroit public schools registering less than 10 percent proficiency in all categories. The assessments are moving in the wrong direction, as 2017 scores overall were below those in 2013.

The PEW Research Center (Feb. 15, 2017) reports that “U.S. students’ academic achievement still lags that of their peers in many other countries.”

The Programme for International Student Assessment every three years measures reading, math, science and other skills among 15-year-olds in dozens of developed and developing countries. In the latest test, the United States placed “an unimpressive 38th out of 71 countries in math and science.”

Among the 35 members of the OECD (the group of developed countries), the U.S. ranked 30th in math and 19th in science.

American students did somewhat better on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study assessment given to fourth- and eighth-graders, but still fell behind several of our peers.

In fairness, as the sociologist James Coleman noted decades ago, there is a limit to what schools can do in the absence of strong home support systems that nurture education. On most measures, the American family is in decline in terms of stable two-parent households willing and able to read to their children regularly, enforce homework expectations, turn off the television, and limit access to video games and other diversions, promote a serious work ethic and other such values, and generally provide a hospitable environment in support of education.

As just one manifestation of the problem, 95 percent of American teenagers have access to a smartphone. Most studies find that the average teen spends nine hours a day using media, whether watching online videos, listening to music, texting or engaging in other activities on electronic devices, which are increasingly thought to be rewiring kids’ brains in ways detrimental to their intellectual growth. Most parents are out to lunch in monitoring and restricting their child’s media use. Unfortunately, many schools only add to kids’ digital addiction by making classrooms computer-centered.

At the same time, notwithstanding constant concerns voiced about all the stress and heavy workloads our children are experiencing, “most students spend less than one hour on homework daily.” The exception are students in Honors and Advanced Placement courses in elite high schools.

But even here “equity and diversity” pressures to relax admission criteria – to open up such classes to anyone who has a pulse – will likely dumb down the classes, including reducing homework expectations. 

Despite weak academic performance trends nationwide, instead of raising standards, there is a relentless push to lower them – in the name of reducing “stress,” increasing “equity,” or whatever. Amazingly, one even has to “make the case for homework” (Janine Bempechat, Education Next, Winter 2019).

One can see that it is both parents and educators who are the problem. Neither the home nor school seems to push for more onerous academic challenge except at the rhetorical level.

The public seems to understand that our schools are failing. A recent poll showed that only 24 percent of Americans give the country’s public schools a grade of A or B. As is often the case, people tend to look more favorably at their particular local representative, although barely a majority (51 percent) rated their local school district that high. Indeed, both the postal service and law enforcement are viewed more favorably than schools, with 68 percent of Americans grading their local post offices with a grade of A or B and 69 percent giving those high marks to their local police forces (Albert Cheng et al., Education Next, Winter 2019).

We shall see if 2019 proves to be a turning point in American education. Neither No Child Left Behind nor Common Core nor other recent systemic efforts have worked.

Is it perhaps time to seriously try “school choice”? It’s just a thought.

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including his latest: “New Warfare: Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”