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Editorial: ‘Nation’s report card’ needs senior year grades

Math scores are flat. Reading scores are down. Other countries do better.

The news about American students’ test results can make for depressing reading. But it’s vital information, because it generates so much energy, so much determination and so many valuable experiments in school reform.

That’s why the National Assessment of Educational Progress should pursue a nationwide test of 12th graders.

As of today, the “Nation’s Report Card” (as the NAEP is often called) tests enough fourth and eighth graders to get statistically valid results from all 50 states, plus a sampling of 12th graders from 13 volunteer pilot states.

Results from the 2013 testing of 12th graders came out this week, and most analysts were disappointed. “High school seniors’ performance in mathematics and reading has stagnated since 2009, according to a new round of results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress,” Education Week reported.

Added an obviously underwhelmed Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education: “We must reject educational stagnation in our high schools, and as a nation, we must do better for all students, especially for African-American and Latino students.”

Duncan’s right – and that’s the point. We must do better – and in order to do better, we need the data that a full-on NAEP would give us on the college and career readiness of America’s high-school seniors.

For one thing, enormous attention is being devoted to remedial education in colleges, and that’s because enormous numbers of college freshmen lack basic skills.

A nationwide NAEP for 12th graders would give the public hard data about students’ readiness before those students get to college, thus allowing proactive vs. simply reactive reforms.

Plus, the current testing in 13 states means the other 37 states get left out. That latter figure includes both North Dakota and Minnesota, neither of which saw their 12th graders tested, so neither of which can benefit from state-specific results.

South Dakota can benefit, because it was one of the 13 tested states. “South Dakota’s reading and math assessment scores for 12th graders have stagnated,” the Rapid City (S.D.) Journal reported this week.

Iowa can benefit, too, as it also was a tested state: “Iowa’s student results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress show some gains in math and reading since 2011, but stagnation over the long term remains a challenge statewide,” wrote the Iowa Department of Education.

But neither Minnesota nor North Dakota can examine similar results. That should change, because parents, educators and elected officials in this region need reliable indicators that are specific to these states.

The NAEP’s findings are by far the most trusted source of information on the progress of fourth and eighth graders. But as of now, there’s a gap in our knowledge about 12th grade, American teens’ all-important transition year. Officials should expand the assessment to fill that yawning gap.