Nation's Report Card Begs Us to Get Back to Basics

April 19, 2018

Takeaways

We cannot lose focus on the basic skills that must be mastered to prepare students for a competitive job market.

Technology is changing the world faster than ever. While we might not be able to predict or even imagine what the jobs of the future will look like, we do know one thing: the jobs of tomorrow will require students and workers to know how to read and do basic math.

Sadly, the number of students who are on track to fill the jobs of tomorrow continues to shrink.

Last week, the results of the 2017 administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as our “Nation’s Report Card,” were released. The test, which measures reading and math, has been administered every two years to students in 4th and 8th grade for the past 50 years, making it the gold standard for tracking the progress of America’s students and future workforce.

The importance of reading on grade level by 3rd grade is well known: 3rd grade marks the critical juncture when students move from learning to read to reading to learn. It is also a predictor of success later in life, impacting a student’s likelihood of graduating high school, entering college, and holding down a job. Yet, according to the 2017 results, only 37 percent of 4th graders are reading on grade level, meaning that more than half of America’s students haven’t mastered the skills they need for success in school and in careers.

Even more disheartening, the test results showed a widening in the achievement gap between traditionally high-performing students and low-income, at-risk students. The scores of our lowest-performing students have declined across the country, with our most disadvantaged students showing the biggest decline in 4th grade reading scores, and the poorest states and districts performing the worst.

Although scores remained relatively flat across all subgroups, only 13 percent of black students and 20 percent of Hispanic students can do math at 8th grade level. Not only do these numbers forecast a lack of proficient workers for future businesses, but they also show how we are failing to provide a valuable education and opportunities for the students who need it the most.

In keeping up with the increased need for technology skills in the 21st century workplace, 2017 marks the first year that the test was administered to students on a tablet. In discussing the results, some superintendents have blamed their state’s poor performance on the use of tablets, arguing that it disadvantaged students of color and students in rural communities. While the NAEP Governing Board adjusted the scores to account for the technology gap, the reality is that many students do not have access to technology at home to support their learning. Today, approximately 5 million households with school-age children do not have access to high-speed internet at home.

As our economy gets more and more sophisticated and our reliance on technology increases, the demand for students with math, reading, and technology skills is only going to increase. Today, there are 2.5 million open jobs in STEM fields, with this number expected to continue to grow.

A Call to Action

Last week’s NAEP results show that there are too few students equipped with the skills they will need to succeed in college and the workforce. With more than half of our 4th graders scoring below grade level in reading and math, the businesses of tomorrow will not be able to employ the students of today.

As policymakers engage in a dynamic conversation around apprenticeships and workplace learning, they must not lose focus on the importance of the foundational skills that have to be mastered to prepare all students for a competitive job market. Last week’s release of the “Nation’s Report Card” is a call to action, not just to those in the education system, but also to the larger community of policymakers and leaders who must do more to provide opportunities for all students.