Do Flat High School Scores = No Useful Learning Gains? I’m Not Sure.

Both Kevin Drum and Rick Hess recently wrote about flat / declining high school learning gains.

Kevin argues that gain in K-8 are being washed out by poor high school performance, while Rick points to inconsistencies in those who are caught in trap of arguing both K-8 is awful (it washes out pre-k gains!) and K-8 is great (it’s the high schools that mess everything up!).

Kevin writes:

In the end, though, it doesn’t matter what the score is in the sixth inning if your bullpen consistently blows big leads. What we care about is how well educated our kids are when they leave school and enter the world. Until our high schools are able to build on the big gains they’re inheriting from middle schools, we’re not going to see any improvement on that score.

Rick writes:

 In any event, I’m curious if those who are raising the “alarm” over high schools that are fumbling away our K-8 gains have now decided that Head Start’s initial results are what counts, and the actual problem is K-8 fumbling away our hard-earned pre-K gains.

But I think there might be a flaw in this line of thinking.

It seem plausible that learning how to read / do math at an 8th grade level is actually very useful in life (assuming this equates to a basic level of numeracy and literacy), regardless of whether or not one ever masters high school content.

The same is clearly not the same for pre-k learning, which doesn’t really give you a leg up in life if you don’t continue to learn.

In this sense, 8th grade achievement should be considered independently of high school failure; i.e., learning how to multiply is useful even if you never master Algebra II.

Following this logic, increasing 8th grade scores and flat high school scores could indicate real learning improvement that is not subject to washout.

In order to understand if this was true, we’d want to test high school students on 8th grade content to ensure the learning stuck, which I don’t know if we’re doing.

But the fact that high schoolers are not increasing their performance on high school content doesn’t seem to be evidence that they’ve lost their 8th grade knowledge.

Am I missing something?

Admittedly, I’m not an expert in NAEP methodology, so perhaps flat high school scores does indicate 8th grade wash out. I’d just to love see this case explicitly made.

Until then, I’ll sleep a little better knowing that 8th grade scores up.

2 thoughts on “Do Flat High School Scores = No Useful Learning Gains? I’m Not Sure.

  1. Matthew Ladner


    It is worth noting that grad rates have steadily improved since the 1996 from 71 percent to almost 81 percent in 2012 and this will have some impact on the composition of the 12th grade NAEP sample. If we make the assumption that the average academic achievement of dropouts is lower than average then this could conceal a a degree of improvement.

  2. rpondiscio

    Complicated issue, Neerav and your post suggests that you view teacher/school quality as having a direct cause and effect relationship with test scores. I would argue (have argued, endlessly) that while it’s easier to see such correlations in math, reading is different. Broadly speaking math is hierarchical while literacy is cumulative–every cognitive input a child has contributes to his or her ability to use language proficiently. The nature of tests is an issue too. In the early years, reading tests have more to do with skills like decoding; texts are fairly simple. The older you get, the more sophisticated reading test passages and tasks become. At this point, a reading test has little to do with the “skill” of reading comprehension, which is not really a skill at all. It becomes more of a de facto test of broad background knowledge, and deficiencies that have long been in place are more likely to be revealed.

    More here:


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.