Earlier this week the U.S. Department of Education released grade 12 results in reading and math  from the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card. In a nutshell, performance stayed largely unchanged from the 2009 assessment. What’s more, experts worry that students are graduating largely unprepared for college or the workplace.

Alarming majorities of students are not proficient in reading and math. In math, just over one in four students scored proficient in math (26 percent); while less than two out of five students scored proficient in reading (38 percent). Across student racial sub-groups, less than 50 percent of students reached proficiency in reading and math.

The 2013 NAEP assessment is a nationally representative sample of 92,000 students from public and private schools in 13 states that participated.

Reaction to the results was grim. As Liz Klimas reported for The Blaze:

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement that even though there has been some good news related to graduation rates and scores in younger grades, high school achievement has been flat in recent years. ‘We must reject educational stagnation in our high schools, and as a nation we must do better for all students, especially for African-American and Latino students,’ Duncan said. The results come as community colleges and four-year institutions try to improve remedial education programs, given that only about one-quarter of students who take a remedial class graduate. It’s estimated that more than one-third of all college students, and more than one-half in community colleges, need some remedial help, according to research from the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. [See here.]

The disappointing grade 12 NAEP results come on the heels of a report last month that American high school graduation rates reached an historic high of 80 percent. Some experts speculate that this disconnect is the result of watered down classes and grade inflation, which makes it easier for students to get a high school diploma but more difficult for them to do well on standardized tests because they don’t have a solid academic foundation.

But there is good news. A variety of parental choice programs are helping some 1.5 million students attend schools of their parents’ choice. Specifically, close to 850,000 families in seven states are benefiting from education tax credits and deductions that help them pay out-of-pocket tuition for private schools.  More than 300,000 students are also attending private schools through 41 parental choice programs in 22 states.

U.S. Department of Education analyses have shown “that students who had attended private school in eighth grade were twice as likely as those who had attended public school to have completed a bachelor’s or higher degree by their mid-20s (52 versus 26 percent)” (p. 24). Importantly, students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds (referred to as socioeconomic status or SES) who had attended private school in eighth grade were more than three times as likely as their public school peers to have earned a bachelor’s degree by their mid-twenties (24 versus 7 percent) (p. 24). Based on its ongoing reviews of student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card, the U.S. Department of Education summarized, “For the past 30 years, NAEP has reported that students in private schools outperform students in public schools”  (p.2).

Available NAEP results for grades 4, 8, and 12 over the past decade reveal students attending private schools outperform their public school peers overall by as much as two grade levels, depending on the subject. Likewise, low-income and minority students also outperform their public school peers by as much as two and a half grade levels (pp. 19-23).

Gold-standard research of parental choice programs confirms that participating students, the overwhelming majority of whom are from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, have higher academic achievement, high school graduation rates, and college-enrollment rates than their public school peers. A significant body of additional scientific research confirms those findings.

Parental choice programs also save money (pp. 29-31) and introduce powerful competitive pressure for public schools to perform better. In fact, in areas where public schools face competition for students from private and other types of schools, student achievement improves (see, for example, here and here).

Letting parents choose the education options they believe work best for their children is a tried and true way of overcoming academic stagnation and setting students up for success. Rather than limiting education options, policymakers should be expanding them.