Education is critical for societies with complex modern economic systems. However, measuring the quality of education over time is difficult. As the economy and society become more complex, so do the educational needs. As the rate of technology change increases, some jobs disappear and others are created. Workers have to be more adaptable than ever before and must be continually learning if they are to keep up with a rapidly changing job market.
Here is some of what we do know about education in America:
Only 48% of adults age 25 and older had a high school education in 1964. By 2004, the number rose to 84%. The population completing college tripled from 9% to 27% over the same timeframe. So how do the most recent graduates compare to students in previous years?
The above statistics have been adjusted by College Board to compensate for changes made to the SAT in the 1990s. These statistics show the highest composite score (mean of the verbal and math scores) was 529.5 in 1967 and 1968. The composite score declined significantly over the next decade and bottomed out in 1980 and 1981 at 497. That score has risen steadily to 513 in 2004, the highest rate since 1974.
The math score has increased from an all time low of 492 in 1981 to 518 in 2004. (The score was 519 in 2003.) For the last two years the math score has been higher than the previous high of 517 in 1969. However, after an initial rise, the verbal score declined to an all time low of 499 in 1991 and 1994. It improved over the next ten years to 508. Some speculate that the verbal score was depressed by an increasing number of people taking the test who did not have English as their first language, namely immigrants and non-USA students.
These statistics suggest that there is a significant increase in the proportion of people receiving a diploma and that the quality of education for college bound students is improving. Still, quality of education is a relative standard. Forty years ago, more than sixty percent of jobs were considered unskilled labor. That percentage has dropped by more than half since that time. More and more jobs require greater technical schools. The economy increasingly demands that workers be involved in continual education throughout their careers. There is also an increasing demand for people with aptitudes for science and technology. Yet nearly a third of high school graduates can not read at a level beyond the most basic level needed to function in society. Are we effectively equipping students with the skills they will need?
Of the four major areas measured in NEAP tests, only mathematics showed improvement for the oldest children over the past two or three decades. Reading has remained at the same level while writing and science of have actually declined. For the youngest children, there is an improvement in mathematics and science scores but no change in the reading and writing scores. It remains to be seen if these improvements with younger children will carry forward in their academic lives but it is a good start.
There is clearly room for improvement within our educational institutions. The rate of people earning high school, college, and advanced diplomas is the highest it has ever been. SAT scores suggest that there is improvement in the preparation of college bound high school students over the past twenty years. However, the NEAP scores suggest there has been little improvement in the quality of education across the whole spectrum of high school students. These indicators seem to suggest a quality of life that is modestly improving.