Most Americans agree with President Barack Obama's assessment that a "complete and competitive education for the 21st century" means all students will need some form of education or training beyond high school. That's why college and career readiness for all by 2020 is his administration's top education goal.
Yet while we recognize that higher levels of educational attainment will open doors to a better life for students, we haven't been able to keep an estimated 7,000 of them each day from heading quietly for the exits before they've had even a chance to earn a high school diploma.
Fewer than seven in 10 students in this country graduate from high school on time, according to the latest data available from the U.S. Department of Education. For students of color and those living in poverty or residing in large urban areas, the odds of on-time graduation are even slimmer. Barely half (51 percent) of African-American students successfully complete high school, while only 55 percent of Hispanics do.
For many of the 1.3 million young people who leave high school each year without a diploma, the path that eventually leads to this educational dead end begins in middle school. The National Assessment of Educational Progress—often referred to as "the nation's report card"—provides a snapshot of student achievement in various subject areas at crucial transition points, including 8th grade. In June 2009, the results of the 2008 NAEP arts assessment in music and visual arts were released; it was the first NAEP arts assessment conducted since 1997.
Those 2008 results tell a disappointing, but incomplete, story of 8th grade student achievement in the arts. In music, for example, 8th graders had just a 50-50 chance on average of being able to identify the correct response on any of the multiple-choice questions. In visual arts, 8th graders on average were able to identify the correct answer only 42 percent of the time. As troubling as the overall lackluster performance were the significant disparities in achievement based on socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, gender, and type and location of schools.
Does it really matter if the performance of 8th grade students on the NAEP arts assessments is mediocre at best, or that significant achievement gaps based on socioeconomics and other characteristics continue to persist? It matters only if we as a nation are truly serious about reaching the president's goal of preparing all K-12 students by 2020 to succeed in school, work, and life.