OAKLAND – This month, the U.S. Census Bureau released the latest American Community Survey, a snapshot of the income and education of households nationwide. One of the results is hardly surprising: Education and income are linked.

This fact underscores our nation’s challenge: to increase the education levels of the next generation of Americans so they all can enjoy prosperity.

Here in Maine, fewer than one in four ninth graders make it to college and earn an associate’s degree within three years or a bachelor’s degree within six years. U.S. Census Bureau statistics show that while nearly 80 percent of our students graduate from high school, just 36 percent of adults aged 25 to 34 have an associate’s degree or higher.

In fact, the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems reports that in 2008 more than 60 percent of our state’s high school graduates went directly to college, but 25 percent dropped out after the first year.

As a high school mathematics teacher, my goal — and my responsibility — is not only to make sure my students march on graduation day, but also to prepare them for the kinds of higher education or job training that will ensure lifelong success.

That preparation must begin long before graduation. To do my job, I need access to reliable data to work on continuous improvement.

Educators who want to lay the groundwork for student success should pay close attention to the National Assessment of Educational Progress — better known as The Nation’s Report Card.

NAEP is the gold standard in education assessments: the largest nationwide, continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in core subjects at grades four, eight, and 12 — critical junctures in academic achievement.

As a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP, I’m particularly interested in students’ capabilities in mathematics, science and technology. These closely linked subjects provide essential knowledge and skills for jobs in burgeoning economic sectors with high employee demand, including health care and information technology.

The nationwide 2009 NAEP results for grade 12 math, released in November, gave us reasons to be optimistic, particularly with the increased numbers of students scoring at the basic and proficient achievement levels.

A fairly high proportion of students reached the basic achievement level, which is a good indication that they can solve routine mathematics problems in familiar settings. However, relatively few students reached the proficient and advanced levels, which require the ability to handle more sophisticated mathematics and use it in unfamiliar situations.

One factor that may have produced improvement is that more students are enrolled in tougher mathematics courses, and the proportion of high school seniors who have taken only geometry, algebra I or less advanced courses dropped from 20 percent in 2005 to 15 percent last year.

To some degree, the persistent racial and gender differences in mathematics achievement reflect the differences in enrollment rates in advanced math courses.

For example, 46 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander students — who on average score higher than other groups in math — report taking calculus, compared to 20 percent of whites, 10 percent of Hispanics and 9 percent of blacks.

In early 2011, the Governing Board will provide a source of additional insight with the release of the 2009 Science Report Card for fourth, eighth and 12th graders in Maine and the nation.

We already have strong evidence that students’ NAEP scores are linked to the level and difficulty of the math and science courses they take.

In addition, research such as ACT’s 2007 Rigor at Risk report shows that high school students who take rigorous advanced mathematics and science courses double their rate of college readiness.

While NAEP’s achievement levels are not defined as markers of preparation for college or work, the disparities between different demographic groups in reaching the proficient and advanced achievement levels in 12th-grade mathematics are strikingly similar to the differences in college enrollment and graduation rates in demanding mathematics and engineering programs.

Clearly, students are not likely to succeed in such programs in college unless they’ve mastered the mathematics they need in high school.

So as we await the next Nation’s Report Card on science achievement, educators need to be relentless in their efforts to reinvigorate the mathematics and science curricula — engaging students and challenging them to advance to higher levels of difficulty so that they are ready for the challenges of college and demands of 21st-century, high-skill jobs.

 

— Special to The Press Herald