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Unemployment Rates 1890-2012

High School Test Scores in 8 Subjects

Test score trends are discouraging for high school students in 8 subjects, some tracked for 4 decades. Since consistent national tests are only sporadically conducted for adults, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests of 17-year-olds and seniors are one of the best sources on the skills and knowledge that adults likely possess.  The U.S. Employment and Training Administration has assembled NAEP 1969-2012 tests results for high school students in reading and writing; math and science; and history, economics, civics, and geography.

For the full analysis, see High School Test Scores in 8 Subjects.

Due to changing test content, it’s only possible to compare results from any point in the past until the near-present in 6 of the 8 subjects: math, reading, history, civics, geography, and economics (for science and writing, recent comparisons can only be made for 1996-2005 and 1998-2007, respectively). Among the 8 subjects, only 2 (U.S. history and writing) show statistically-significant rising test scores over a recent period of comparable data — and these increases have been tiny. Moreover, writing trends for the preceding period (1984-94) show a decline, suggesting that the long-term trend is not positive. Math, reading, and economics show no trend toward improvement, and science, geography and civics show declines (only statistically significant for science and geography, although longer-term results suggest a large, significant drop in civics performance over the 1969-2010 period). Unfortunately NAEP discontinued its three-decade science trend tests after 1999, during which a relatively large decline occurred.

ETA’s analysis includes the precise test scores and years of comparable data for each subject; which changes have been statistically significant; and Internet links to the underlying studies.


High School Coursework Over 3 Decades


High school graduates have taken more courses, and more demanding courses, over a nearly 3-decade span since the early 1980s, according to an analysis by the U.S. Employment and Training Administration.  The increases have been very large, but paradoxically haven’t boosted test scores.  See High School Coursework Over Three Decades. To our knowledge, such a broad overview of this subject is available nowhere else but here. For a more detailed review of career and technical education, see Secondary Career Coursetaking Declines


More Coursework

The average high school graduate in 2009 (the latest available data) garnered 27.2 credits, up 5.4 from 21.8 in 1982 (one credit means a full year course).  Compared with 1982's courseload, this represents a full extra year of schooling.  Every academic subject has experienced gains, with the largest credit increases occurring in science (2.2 to 3.5); math (2.6 to 3.9); foreign languages (1.1 to 2.3); and social studies (3.2 to 4.2).  Only work-related courses experienced no increases, with vocationally-specific courses unchanged, while general career guidance courses plummeted from 1.0 to only .3 credits.


Math and Science Courses

Trends in the proportion of graduates who took selected courses show remarkable growth in algebra, geometry, chemistry and physics, but significant increases also occurred in the social sciences.  In math, only trigonometry exhibited no clear trend.  The highest math increases occurred in algebra 1 (55 to 69 percent of graduates) and algebra 2 (40 to 76 percent); geometry (47 to 88 percent); and pre-calculus (6 to 35 percent) and calculus (5 to 16 percent).  All science and engineering courses significantly grew, most notably in chemistry (32 to 70 percent); physics (15 to 36 percent); and biology (77 to 96 percent) — and the proportion that took all three rose from 11 to 30 percent. 


Social Science Courses

Among the social sciences (for which data only begin with 1990), only world geography exhibited no clear trend.  World history (60 to 86 percent), economics (49 to 59 percent), and civics (79 to 86 percent) grew the most, although in the last two cases all of the increase occurred after 2005. 


Background and Related Information

Although high schools routinely maintain transcripts, these are only sporadically collected and systematically classified by researchers.  As shown in the table, for most subjects the first year of comparable data is 1982, although foreign language enrollment (not course completion) data are available for selected years since 1948.  In the post-World War II period, foreign language enrollment rose in the 1950s and 1960s, then fell in the 1970s before rising again in the 1980s (and continues its rise through the most recent data).


For a study using data from a different source, but which reached the same conclusions, see High School Students Taking More Demanding Courses.


We review the trends on homework/study time (for both high school and college students) in NOT Hitting the Books — Limited Homework and Studying Time in High School and College.  


For test score trends, see High School Test Scores in 8 Subjects.

Unemployment Rates 1890-2012