Leading Education Indicators: Trends in Education
September 2008

See also Public Education in the U.S.: What Is Changing?

  2000 2003 2005 2007 Trend
Achievement * 25% 30% 31% 33% Up
What percentage of 4th- and 8th- graders are proficient or above in reading and math?
Achievement Gap * 23% 30% 33% 35% Up
What percentage of black and Hispanic 4th-and 8th-graders are proficient or above in reading and math as compared to the same cohort of white students?
High School Graduation * 72% 74% 75% 74% No change
What is the percentage of public high school students who earn a regular diploma in four years?
College Readiness * 42% 42% 42% 42% No change
Of the high school students who take a college entrance exam, what percentage are ready for a college course?
College Completion * 29% 30% 30% 31% No change
What percentage of our young labor force (25-34 years old) have at least a bachelor's degree?
Composite * 38 41 42 43 Up slightly

* Please refer to the Technical Notes below for further explanation.

Technical Notes



Academic achievement was calculated using the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). These assessments are given in reading and math to a sample of 4th- and 8th-graders in all 50 states approximately every other year. For the purposes of this analysis, the 4th- and 8th-grade percentages of those at or above proficient in reading and math were averaged together. Also, the 2000 data include only 4th- and 8th-grade math and 4th-grade reading, as 8th-grade reading was not tested in that year. The proficient level in NAEP is generally considered to be more difficult than the proficient level in most state assessments, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Source: Main National Assessment of Educational Progress, U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, Washington, D.C., various years, available at

Achievement Gap

Measuring progress on reducing the achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and white students was also done using NAEP percentages for those 4th- and 8th-graders at or above proficient in reading and math. In this case, the percentages of students at or above proficient in 4th- and 8th-grade reading and math were averaged separately for white students, black students and Hispanic students. The black and Hispanic averages were then combined and calculated as a percentage of the white average. This indicator shows the performance of black and Hispanic students relative to the performance of white students. For example, in 2007, the average proficiency of white students on these assessments was 43 percent, while for black and Hispanics it was only 15 percent. Thus, the percentage of black and Hispanic students at or above proficiency was only 35 percent of that for whites.

Source: Main National Assessment of Educational Progress, U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, Washington, D.C., various years, available at

High School Graduation

High school graduation is measured using the Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR). The AFGR estimates the number of public high school students who graduate on time, that is, four years after starting 9th grade, with a regular diploma. The rate uses aggregate student enrollment data to estimate the size of an incoming freshman class and aggregate counts of the number of diplomas awarded four years later. The incoming freshman class size is estimated by summing the enrollment in 8th grade for one year, 9th grade for the next year, and 10th grade for the year after and then dividing by 3. The averaging is intended to account for higher grade retentions in the 9th grade. While the AFGR is not as accurate as an on-time graduation rate calculated from a cohort of students using individual student record data, this estimate of an on-time graduation rate can be computed with currently available data. Because not all states have the longitudinal data systems in place to track students over time, the AFGR gives us the best national picture at this time. At the same time, while the AFGR has some deficiencies at the state and local levels, it is an accurate measure on the national level. The AFGR and on-time graduation rates do not include students who later earn GEDs or even students who graduate with a regular diploma in five or six years instead of four.

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), "State Nonfiscal Survey of Public Elementary/Secondary Education," 1999–2000 through 2004–05; and The Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate for Public High Schools From the Common Core of Data: School Years 2002–03 and 2003–04. Data for 2005–06 were obtained directly from the National Center for Education Statistics and an assumption was made that the 2007 data would not be substantially higher or lower than 2006.

College Readiness

Most high school students who aspire to go to college take one or both of the national entrance exams: the ACT test or the SAT. Participation in the ACT or SAT exams is, to a large extent, determined by region. In order to be as comprehensive as possible, we used a composite of Critical Reading and Mathematics scores from each exam. College readiness is determined by a benchmark score set by the ACT. A benchmark score is the minimum score needed on an ACT subject-area test to indicate a 50 percent chance of obtaining a B or higher or a 75 percent chance of obtaining a C or higher in the corresponding credit-bearing college courses. Both ACT and the College Board make available concordance tables that allow admissions officers to see how students of comparable ability would score on the two exams. The average SAT score was converted to its ACT equivalent. Then the percentage of students from both tests who reached the ACT's college readiness benchmark was calculated to produce the national college readiness score.

Source: ACT National Profile Report, available at,,, and the College Board's College-Bound Seniors Report, available at sat/archived/2001, sat/archived/2004, sat/archived/2006, sat/cb-seniors-2008.

College Completion

This number reflects the proportion of those between ages 25 and 34 who have attained at least a bachelor's degree, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This particular age range was selected because the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) publishes the same data for each of its 30 member countries. Consequently, international comparisons can be made.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, available at socdemo/education/cps2007.html.

Summary Indicator

The five indicators were averaged, with equal weighting, to produce a single summary indicator.


  • Several measures require averaging data points. In these cases, no weighting was assigned to the components. Weighting the components, e.g., the relative contribution of Hispanics to the achievement gap or the relative contribution of the SAT to the college readiness score, would involve either value judgments or continual recalibration.
  • Similarly, each measure contains variation and error. Summarizing them, through further averaging, is, thus, subject to the criticism that the standard errors could be of sufficient size that perceived changes are not, in fact, different than zero. However, these numbers are meant to serve as a guide and should not be interpreted as anything else.
  • There are many other data points that could point to the quality, or lack thereof, of the U.S. public education system. These five were selected because they are national, reliable, results-based, and, in most cases, annual. Further, it is believed that they best capture our overarching goals in that they encompass metrics of the performance of the United States education system throughout the entire elementary through post-secondary timeline.

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Last Modified: 09/12/2008