Truth or consequences: Failing America’s youth

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Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher wrote in his September school funding decision of the “alarming” condition of education in the state’s neediest districts, citing that “[A]mong the poorest, most of the students are being let down by patronizing and illusory degrees.” He has a point – one that extends far beyond Connecticut and our poorest students.

The latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), referred to as the Nation’s Report Card, found that nearly two-thirds of 12th-graders in the U.S. perform below proficiency in reading, and three-quarters perform below proficiency in both math and science.

In early December, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released results from the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) assessment, which examines the skills of 15-year-olds across 34 OECD countries. U.S. student performance was, at best, mediocre (in science and reading) and well below average in mathematics.

In 2015, based on findings from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), we reported that U.S. millennials (those age 16–34) score below – at times well below – the average of 22 OECD nations across the three major skill domains measured. Performance in numeracy, shown to have a strong correlation to labor market outcomes, was especially weak, with U.S. millennials (and the youngest of that cohort, those age 16–24) ranking last.

In our report, we highlighted two troubling issues concerning the level and distribution of skills for our millennials. First, while U.S. young adults are graduating high school and obtaining education beyond high school at greater rates than they did a decade ago, their skills levels have actually declined in numeracy. As with the findings in the Moukawsher decision and elsewhere, these data caution against the belief that focusing primarily on years of schooling, or on the conferring of credentials, is enough.

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America's Skills Challenge report / Educational Testing Service

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We also found a troubling level of inequality in the distribution of skills: The U.S. had the largest gap, or level of inequality, between the highest and lowest performers in numeracy when compared to other nations (though it should also be noted that at both ends of the distribution – high and low – U.S. millennials scored at the bottom).

The skill level and distribution data highlighted in the international and national reports are important when one considers the strong relationship between skills and the things we care about: higher rates of employment, higher wages, better health, longer life expectancy, stronger families, greater civic engagement, and general well-being.

It’s clear that skills matter for our quality of life, both on a personal and societal level. It follows, then, that those in our society with below-average skills – and those without the ability to obtain the skills needed – cannot hope to thrive in the current knowledge-based society we are building. As a country, can we really afford (in both a moral and fiscal sense) the consequences of having such a large segment of our student and young adult population without the skills they need?

The Connecticut case is an important example of a much broader phenomenon. We have become a nation of stark contradictions. While the U.S. is among the wealthiest OECD countries, it is also among the most economically unequal. Even though our country is ostensibly based on the principles of meritocracy, it ranks among the highest in terms of the link between socio-economic background and skill level.

Although the U.S. is home to some of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the world (some right in Connecticut), far too many of our young adults with post-secondary education score among the lowest in skills surveys. This is part of the larger story being told in the CTMirror series, and one with broad-reaching implications for every state and the nation.

While investments aimed directly at education are indeed critical, research on opportunity tells us that the development of skills is a complex, lifelong process that is tightly bound to the availability of beneficial social networks, and highly correlated to the well-being of individuals and their communities.

As we continue to lose ground in terms of the skills of our students and young adults, we need to better appreciate the ways in which educational systems – linked as they are to income, access to resources, and the health of communities they purport to serve –perpetuate inequalities of opportunity. Improving the skills of our children and adults needs to be accompanied by systematic and systemic changes both inside and outside the school doors; only then can we hope to meaningfully address the challenges we face.

Madeline Goodman and Anita Sands are researchers at Educational Testing Service. They are co-authors of “America’s Skill Challenge: Millennials and the Future.”

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