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Gains Among Students Whose Parents Didn't Finish High School


One interesting sign of academic progress on the latest "nation's report card" results came among students who are presumably at a pretty serious disadvantage. Math scores for students who reported that their parents didn't complete high school rose on the NAEP from 287 to 292, on a 500-point scale, the biggest jump of any student group, as measured by parents' educational background. Overall, 17-year-olds' scores were flat among students in every performance level.

By contrast, among students who said at least one parent had graduated from college, and those who said either mom or dad had "some education after high school," math scores were flat. (Students with better-educated parents, on average, scored considerably higher than sons and daughters of high school non-completers.)

I'll put the test results out there and pose the obvious question: Why are 17-year-olds whose parents didn't make it through 12th grade making gains? One possibility I'll put out for the sake of discussion: Could this be a trickle-up effect of No Child Left Behind? That law sought to bring more scrutiny to the the performance of minority and low-income students, particularly in elementary and middle school. Are those efforts paying off, as these students reach high school? Or are state-level education policies, such curricular improvements, if they created more focused math lessons in elementary and middle school, deserving of credit? Or is there some sort of out-of-school social policy at work here, which could be benefiting students from these backgrounds?

Among 13-year-olds whose parents did not finish high school, scores also rose, from 263 to 268, though that jump was not statistically significant. The scores among students in that age group with better-educated parents also climbed by a couple points in most categories, although those increases also were not statistically relevant. (All this can be found on Figure 12 of the NAEP long-term trends report.)

Overall, parents' level of education has been improving since the late 1970s, according to the NAEP data. The percentage of students who reported that at least one parent had graduated from college increased from 32 percent to 46 percent during that time period. Similarly, the portion of 17-year-olds who said their parents top education level was having "graduated from high school," fell from 33 percent to 19 percent. (See Appendix 2)

How do you interpret the progress among these (presumably disadvantaged) 17-year-olds?


It's pretty hard to discount the possible impact of NCLB (and all that has sprung from it) given the time-frame and the aims of NCLB. State academic content standards certainly help to define what kids are supposed to be learning. But we know that until NCLB put some "teeth" into the standards movement not too much was happening as regards improvement.

I didn't get my Master's degree very long ago. About 10 years when the standards mania was just getting started. My professor of adolescent psychology said that he supported the change in NYS for getting rid of the basic RCT tests and taking Regents because he found low performing students deliberately not studying very hard so that the same content was covered over and over every year. RCT tests had a basic Math test, basic Science, English etc. so there wasn't much challenge. The Regents tests were made the test for everyone so that the students had to take particular courses such as Global Studies, Earth Science etc. If that was done in other states it would have the effect of students being exposed to more information. On the other side however, the Regents tests and courses were considerably dumbed down in order to get the low end kids to pass. That is a big reason why AP courses etc. took on a much more important role in NYS. If higher end students don't take those courses, they aren't being challenged as much as they would have before had they taken Regents courses.

I came across yor web page and found this subject really interesting! I am from the Amish culture, and attended a one room schoolhouse, untill the age of thirteen. Years later I have completed my GED, and am a sophmore in the nursing field at a private Liberal arts college. College has been pretty tough for me, not only am I going against my cultures belief, and not getting the support most college students do, but also face the challenges of having the background of having only an eighth grade education. My parents have also only completed the eighth grade. I was actually wondering if there are grants available for students like me? I know there is one but do not know what it is called! If you know I would greatly appreciate if you could let me know!


I would think you might be eligible for a number of grants, not necessarily related to your educational or personal background, per se, but which many students are eligible for. I would look to the US Department of Education's web site, at www.ed.gov, or at:


Also, check with the state department of education in whatever state you're in. If you are considering going into teaching, you could also be eligible for additional aid, or loan forgiveness, depending on if you are considering going into a high-need subject (like math, science, or special education). Check with your state, and with the US Department for that.

Thank you for your comment and good luck --

Ed Week

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