American high school students are taking tougher classes, getting better grades and, apparently, learning less than their counterparts of 15 years ago.
Those were the discouraging implications of two reports issued Thursday by the federal Department of Education, assessing the performance of students in public and private schools. Together, the reports raised sobering questions about the past two decades of educational reform, including whether the movement to raise school standards has amounted to much more than window dressing.
"I think we're sleeping through a crisis," said David P. Driscoll, the Massachusetts commissioner of education, during a Washington news conference convened by the Department of Education. He called the study results "stunning."
Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley, said he found the results "dismal." After years of reforms aimed primarily at elementary schools, Fuller said the studies "certainly support shining the spotlight on the high school as a priority for reform efforts."
The reports summarized two major government efforts to measure the performance of high school seniors as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. One was a standardized test of 12th graders conducted in 2005. The other was an analysis of transcripts of students who graduated from high school that year.
The transcript study showed that, compared to students in similar studies going back to 1990, the 2005 graduates had racked up more high school credits, had taken more college preparatory classes and had strikingly higher grade point averages. The average GPA rose from 2.68 in 1990 to 2.98 -- close to a solid B -- in 2005.
That was the good news -- or so it seemed. But the standardized test results showed that 12th-grade reading scores have generally been dropping since 1992, casting doubt on what students are learning in those college prep classes.
Math scores posed a different sort of mystery, because the Department of Education switched to a new test in 2005 that wasn't directly comparable to those used before. Still, the results of the new test didn't inspire confidence: Fewer than one-quarter of the 12th graders tested scored in the "proficient" range.
The reports also showed that the gap separating white students from black and Latino students has barely budged since the early 1990s. And although the results were not broken down by state, a broad regional breakdown showed that the West and Southeast lagged well behind the Midwest and, to a lesser extent, the Northeast.
David Gordon, the Sacramento County superintendent of schools and a participant in the Department of Education news conference Thursday, said he found it especially disturbing that the studies focused on "our best students," those who had made it to 12th grade or who had graduated.
"It's clear to me from these data that for all of our talk of the achievement gap among subgroups of students, a larger problem may be an instructional gap or a rigor gap, which affects not just some but most of our students," Gordon said.
The reading and math test was given to 21,000 high school seniors at 900 schools across the country, including 200 private schools. The transcript study was based on 26,000 transcripts from 720 schools, 80 of them private. The reports did not give separate results for public versus private schools.
Policy analysts nationwide said the studies were gloomy news for the American economy, since the country's educational system already measured poorly in international comparisons.
"What we see out of these results is a very disturbing picture of the knowledge and skills of the young people about to go into college and the workforce," said Daria Hall, assistant director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit dedicated to improving education, especially for poor and minority students.
Among other things, Hall said, the transcript study provided clear evidence of grade inflation, as well as "course inflation" -- offering high-level courses that have "the right names" but a dumbed-down curriculum.
"What it suggests is that we are telling students that they're being successful in these courses when, in fact, we're not teaching them any more than they were learning in the past," she said. "So we are, in effect, lying to these students."
Although the reports came out five years after passage of President Bush's signature education reform initiative, No Child Left Behind, Hall and others said it would be unfair to blame that program for the students' poor showing. They were already in high school when No Child Left Behind was enacted, and it is primarily aimed at elementary and middle schools.
Driscoll recalled an earlier president's contribution to education reform -- the Nation at Risk report that seemed to galvanize the educational establishment when it was issued by President Reagan in 1983.
"That was a shocker," said Driscoll. "But here we are, 25 years later [and] ... we've just been ignoring what it's going to take to really change the system."
In a statement issued by her office, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said Thursday that the two reports "show that we have our work cut out for us in providing every child in this nation with a quality education."