Ambition and Ability Don’t Meet for High School Seniors, Study Says

Published December 1, 2005

According to an October report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 69 percent of U.S. high school seniors in 2004 expected to complete college with a four-year degree or higher. Less than half, however, had mastered intermediate-level mathematics, and many could not handle even simple problem solving.

The report, A Profile of the American High School Senior in 2004: A First Look, contained findings from the first follow-up of the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002, which began in 2002 with a national survey of 10th graders.

For the current report, NCES surveyed high school seniors, focusing on four areas: their proficiency in mathematics; their postsecondary educational expectations; the factors those planning to attend college deemed most important in choosing a school; and their values and life goals. The first two areas provided the most troubling results.

On the positive side, a majority of seniors expected to complete at least a four-year degree after high school, with 34 percent planning to complete a four-year degree and 35 percent intending to go on to post-baccalaureate graduate or professional programs. Another 18 percent planned to complete at least some college or a two-year degree.

Skills Don’t Support Expectations

But while seniors reported high expectations, NCES found many do not possess the mathematics skills necessary to meet them. According to the report, 21 percent of the students surveyed could not perform simple operations using decimals, fractions, roots, and powers; 38 percent were incapable of “simple problem solving”; and 65 percent could not handle intermediate-level mathematical concepts. Only 4 percent exhibited mastery of “complex multi-step word problems and advanced mathematics.”

The results were even worse when students’ aspirations were taken into consideration. Sixty-three percent of seniors planning to end their education with a four-year degree had not mastered intermediate-level math, and 32 percent could not handle even simple problems. Among seniors planning to pursue a graduate or professional degree, almost half had not mastered intermediate-level mathematics, and nearly one-fifth had not mastered simple problem solving.

The findings were especially bleak for minority students. Less than 35 percent of African-Americans in the survey demonstrated mastery of simple mathematics, and only 12 percent had mastered intermediate-level skills.

Hispanic students performed only slightly better: A little less than 43 percent had mastered simple problem solving, and just over 18 percent were able to handle intermediate-level problem solving.

Report Confirms Recent Studies

The report’s findings echo those of other recent studies. In March 2005, a report from Achieve, Inc., an organization created by governors and business leaders to raise academic standards and achievement, titled Rising to the Challenge: Are High School Graduates Prepared for College and Work? reported that most employers and college instructors found recent high school graduates lacked many necessary skills and abilities.

Similarly, Public High School Graduation and College Readiness Rates, a September 2003 Manhattan Institute study by Jay P. Greene and Greg Forster, reported only 32 percent of all U.S. students leave high school qualified to attend a four-year college.

Choice, Standards Recommended

“This illustrates the reality gap between students’ expectations and their skills,” said Michael J. Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Virginia.

To bridge the gap, Petrilli said, policymakers “must be unabashed about raising standards.” It is an effort, he said, that must take place at the state level, though he added the report “does raise the question of whether we need national standards.”

Forster, co-author of the Manhattan Institute study and director of research at the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, agreed that improving standards and accountability will help better prepare students for college. He added, however, that the improvements from increasing accountability are not very large and are realized only over a long period of time.

School choice, Forster said, is the only way to help students now.

“Today’s kids need accountability today,” he said. “[We] need to allow parents to match kids to the schools that can serve them best.”

Neal McCluskey ([email protected]) is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.