High School Seniors Test Well in Basic Economics

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 9, 2007

Sixty percent of high school seniors know that lower tax revenue and higher spending increase the national debt, and about half can tell you that the cost of imported goods would probably decrease without trade restrictions. But only 1 in 10 could analyze how a change in the unemployment rate affects income, spending and production.

Those were some of the results released yesterday from the first National Assessment of Educational Progress survey of economic literacy. The findings paint a portrait of a student body that is high in common sense when it comes to dollars and cents, but lower in classroom knowledge. Overall, education officials said the results are an encouraging sign that the study of economics is gaining currency.

Economics is sometimes called "the dismal science," graphs and theories thought to be the stuff of dusty college classrooms. But in recent years, spurred in part by soaring credit card debt and public interest in personal finance, economics has been in vogue. It's subway reading with bestsellers such as "Freakonomics" and, increasingly, high school homework.

"Economics is now in the big leagues," Bruce L. Damasio, a former high school economics teacher who trains secondary teachers at Towson University, said at a news conference in Washington.

More than 2,600 high schools offer Advanced Placement courses in macroeconomics, and more than 2,100 have such courses in microeconomics, the College Board reports. And while economics courses were graduation requirements in only about a third of the states, according to one study, 87 percent of seniors who took the new economics test reported some exposure to the subject in high school.

The rise in course work prompted the federal education officials who administer the national assessments, known as the "nation's report card," to launch the economics test last year. The NAEP has tested national samples of students in reading and math and other subjects for decades. The next economics test is scheduled for 2012.

Seventy-nine percent of the students taking the test scored at or above a basic-achievement level, meaning that they could identify and apply key economic concepts and relationships. Forty-two percent demonstrated proficiency or better, indicating that they could identify and apply important economic concepts in national and international contexts and knew key terms in personal finance. Only 3 percent performed at an advanced level.

Experts caution that scoring of tests varies from subject to subject, complicating efforts to compare economic achievement with, say, reading performance. Still, more 12th- grade students performed well on the economics test than on other recent tests. Thirteen percent scored at or above proficient on U.S. history in 2006, with 23 percent scoring in that range in math in 2005, 18 percent in science in 2005 and 35 percent in reading in 2005.

Robert F. Duvall, president and chief executive of the National Council on Economic Education, which provides resources to economics teachers, said he was encouraged by the results. "We have something to build on," he said. "We're not starting from the basement."

Damasio agreed that the test showed basic literacy but said in a statement that though students scored well on logic-based questions, they were "shaky" on terminology and on how the government and financial institutions work.

Most students understood that if the going rate for babysitting increased, people would spend more time babysitting, he wrote. But only 53 percent of students correctly identified the capital of a firm that produces wind-powered electricity to be the windmills, and only 21 percent identified a policy tool of the Federal Reserve to be the purchase or sale of government securities.

About 11,500 students were included in the nationally representative sample from 590 public and private schools. Boys scored slightly higher than girls, and the study found achievement gaps between demographic groups similar to those in reading and math. Fifty-one percent of white students scored at or above proficient on the test, compared with 16 percent of black students and 21 percent of Hispanic students.

As more young people apply for credit at earlier ages, prepare to vote on complex bond measures and consider major economic and political issues involving Social Security and the national debt, many economists hope the new economics test will help encourage a more rigorous curriculum across the country.

In Maryland, the District and Virginia, economics is written into academic standards but often integrated into other subjects, and is not required as a separate course to graduate, according to the National Council on Economic Education.

The result in Virginia is that the availability of economics classes is "hit or miss," said Joseph Clement, a government and economics teacher at Chantilly High School in Fairfax County. There are about eight semester-long economics courses offered in the county, a Fairfax schools spokesman said, and Clement's is the only one at the Advanced Placement level.

Clement said it's not fair to send students into the world without a basic understanding of economics. "When you teach the discipline of economics, it's about making better decisions" with money and in life, he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company