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Digest of Education Statistics: 2008
Digest of Education Statistics: 2008

NCES 2009-020
March 2009

Chapter 2: Elementary and Secondary Education

This chapter contains a variety of statistics on public and private elementary and secondary education. Data are presented for enrollments, teachers and other school staff, schools, dropouts, achievement, school violence, and revenues and expenditures. These data are derived from surveys conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and other public and private organizations. The information ranges from counts of students and schools to state graduation requirements.


increased by 3 percent from 2001 to 2006, but enrollment at the elementary and secondary levels increased at different rates (table 37 and figure 6). Between 2001 and 2006, public elementary enrollment rose by 1 percent, while secondary enrollment increased by 10 percent. Enrollments in private elementary and secondary schools decreased by an estimated 4 percent between 2001 and 2006 (table 3).

In 2007, two-thirds of 3- to 5-year-olds were enrolled in preprimary education (nursery school and kindergarten), similar to the proportion in 2000 (table 43 and figure 7). However, the percentage of children in full-day programs increased from 2000 to 2007. In 2007, about 57 percent of the children enrolled in preprimary education attended preprimary school all day, compared with 53 percent in 2000.

A higher percentage of 4-year-old children (57 percent) were primarily cared for in center-based programs during the day in 2005–06 than were cared for in home-based settings by their parents (20 percent), in home-based settings by relatives (13 percent), or in home-based settings by nonrelatives (8 percent) (table 46). There were differences in the average quality of care children received in these settings. A higher percentage of children in Head Start and other center-based programs (35 percent) received high-quality care than those in home-based relative and nonrelative care (9 percent), according to the ratings of trained observers (table 47).

From 2001–02 to 2006–07, some increases occurred in the numbers and percentages of children being served in programs for those with disabilities. During the 2001–02 school year, 13 percent of students were served in these programs, compared with 14 percent in 2006–07 (table 50). Some of the change since 2001–02 may be attributed to the increasing percentage of children identified as having other health impairments (limited strength, vitality, or alertness due to chronic or acute health problems such as a heart condition, tuberculosis, rheumatic fever, nephritis, asthma, sickle cell anemia, hemophilia, epilepsy, lead poisoning, leukemia, or diabetes), which rose from 0.7 to 1.2 percent of enrollment; autism, which rose from 0.2 to 0.5 percent of enrollment; and developmental delay, which rose from 0.5 to 0.7 percent of enrollment.

Teachers and Other School Staff

During the 1970s and early 1980s, public school enrollment decreased, while the number of teachers generally increased. As a result, the public school pupil/teacher ratio declined from 22.3 in 1970 to 17.9 in 1985 (table 64 and figure 6).1 After 1985, the number of pupils per teacher continued to decline, reaching 17.2 in 1989. After a period of relative stability during the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, the ratio declined from 17.3 in 1995 to 16.0 in 2000. Some decreases have continued since then, and the public school pupil/teacher ratio was 15.5 in 2006. The projected pupil/ teacher ratio for private schools for 2006 was 13.5.1

The average class size in 2003–04 was 20.4 pupils for public elementary schools and 24.7 for public secondary schools (table 67).

In 2003–04, some 75 percent of public school teachers were female, 41 percent were under 40, and 48 percent had a master's or higher degree (table 68). Compared to public school teachers, a lower percentage of private school teachers (35 percent) had a master's or higher degree. Seventy-six percent of private school teachers were female.

Public school principals tend to be older and have more advanced credentials than public school teachers. In 2003–04, some 15 percent of the public school principals were under age 40 and 98 percent of the public school principals had a master's or higher degree (table 86). A lower percentage of principals than of teachers were female. About 48 percent of public school principals were female, compared to 75 percent of teachers.

The numbers of both teaching and nonteaching staff employed by public schools grew during the 1970s, while the number of students declined (tables 80 and 3). Between 1970 and 1980, the percentage of staff who were teachers declined from 60 percent to 52 percent. From 1980 to 2006, the number of teachers and other staff grew at more similar rates (46 and 50 percent, respectively) than in the 1970s. As a result, the proportion of teachers among total staff was 1 percentage point lower in 2006 than in 1980, in contrast to the decrease of 8 percentage points during the 1970s. Two staff categories increased over 100 percent between 1980 and 2006—instructional aides, which rose 117 percent, and instructional coordinators, which rose 218 percent. Taken together, the percentage of staff with some instructional responsibilities (teachers and instructional aides) increased between 1980 and 2006, from 60 to 63 percent. In 2006, there were 8 pupils per staff member (total staff), compared with 10 pupils per staff member in 1980. In 2003, the number of pupils per staff member at private schools was 7 (table 60).


During most of the last century, the trend to consolidate small schools brought declines in the total number of public schools in the United States. In 1929–30, there were approximately 248,000 public schools, compared with about 99,000 in 2006–07 (table 87). But this number has been increasing in recent years; between 1996–97 and 2006–07, there was an increase of approximately 10,600 schools.

The shift in structure of public school systems toward middle schools (grade spans beginning with 4, 5, or 6 and ending with 6, 7, or 8) since the early 1970s has continued (table 94). The number of all elementary schools (beginning in grade 6 or below, with no grade higher than grade 8) rose by 12 percent to 68,990 between 1996–97 and 2006–07, and the subset of middle schools rose by 22 percent during the same time period. Meanwhile, the number of junior high schools (grades 7 and 8 or 7 to 9) declined by 16 percent. The average number of students in elementary schools declined from 478 students in 1996–97 to 473 students in 2006–07 (table 96). The average enrollment size of secondary schools increased from 703 in 1995–96 to 722 in 2003–04, but then decreased to an average of 711 students in 2006–07. The average size of regular secondary schools, which exclude alternative, special education, and vocational education schools, rose from 777 to 811 between 1996–97 and 2006–07.

High School Graduates and Dropouts

About 3,328,000 high school students are expected to graduate during the 2008–09 school year (table 104), including 3,011,000 public school graduates and 317,000 private school graduates. High school graduates include only recipients of diplomas, not recipients of equivalency credentials. The 2008–09 projection of high school graduates is lower than the record-high projection of 3,346,000 graduates for 2007–08, but exceeds the high point during the baby boom era in 1976–77, when 3,152,000 students earned diplomas. In 2005–06, an estimated 73.4 percent of public high school students graduated on time—that is, received a diploma 4 years after beginning their freshman year (table 106).

The number of General Educational Development (GED) credentials issued rose from 330,000 in 1977 to 487,000 in 2000 (table 108). A record number of 648,000 GED credentials were issued in 2001. In that year, candidates who had already taken any of the five tests in the GED test battery had to complete the entire battery before the end of the year or else take all five tests over again. The reason is that a new GED test series was introduced in 2002. In the same year, data collection procedures changed, with data from the states on the number of credentials issued being replaced by test data from individual test-takers. In 2006, some 464,000 passed the GED tests, up from 330,000 in 2002, the first year of the new test series.2

The percentage of dropouts among 16- to 24-year-olds has shown some decreases over the past 20 years. This percentage, known as the status dropout rate, includes all people in the 16- to 24-year-old age group who are not enrolled in school and who have not completed a high school program, regardless of when they left school. (People who left school but went on to receive a GED credential are not treated as dropouts.) Between 1987 and 2007, the status dropout rate declined from 12.6 percent to 8.7 percent (table 109). Although the status dropout rate declined for both Blacks and Hispanics during this period, their rates (8.4 and 21.4 percent, respectively) remained higher than the rate for Whites (5.3 percent) in 2007. This measure is based on the civilian noninstitutionalized population, which excludes people in prisons, people in the military, and other people not living in households.


Much of the student performance data in the Digest are drawn from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The NAEP assessments have been conducted using three basic designs: the national main NAEP, state NAEP, and long-term trend NAEP. The main NAEP reports current information for the nation and specific geographic regions of the country. The assessment program includes students drawn from both public and nonpublic schools and reports results for student achievement at grades 4, 8, and 12. The main NAEP assessments follow the frameworks developed by the National Assessment Governing Board and use the latest advances in assessment methodology. Because the assessment items reflect curricula associated with specific grade levels, the main NAEP uses samples of students at those grade levels.

Since 1990, NAEP assessments have also been conducted at the state level. Each participating state receives assessment results that report on the performance of students in that state. In its content, the state assessment is identical to the assessment conducted nationally. From 1990 through 2001, the national sample was a subset of the combined sample of students assessed in each participating state along with an additional sample from the states that did not participate in the state assessment. Since 2002, a combined sample of public schools has been selected for both state and national NAEP.

NAEP long-term trend assessments are designed to give information on the changes in the basic achievement level of America's youth since the early 1970s. They are administered nationally and report student performance at ages 9, 13, and 17 in reading and mathematics. Measuring longterm trends of student achievement requires the precise replication of past procedures. For example, students of specific ages are sampled in order to maintain consistency with the original sample design. Similarly, the long-term trend instrument does not evolve based on changes in curricula or in educational practices. The differences in procedures between the main NAEP and the long-term trend NAEP mean that their results cannot be compared directly.

Long-term trend data have shown improvements in achievement in a number of areas. The average reading score at age 9 was higher in 2004 than in any previous assessment year (table 117). The average score at age 13 was higher in 2004 than in 1971, but not measurably different from the average score in 1999. Between 1999 and 2004, average reading scores at age 17 showed no measurable changes. The average score for 17-year-olds in 2004 was similar to that in 1971.

Significant gaps in performance continue to exist between racial/ethnic subgroups. For Black 9-, 13-, and 17- year-olds, average reading scores in 2004 were higher than in 1971 (table 117). At age 9, Black students scored higher on average in 2004 than in any previous administration year. For White students, the average scores for 9- and 13- year-olds were also higher in 2004 than in 1971. Separate data for Hispanics were not gathered in 1971, but as with the other racial/ethnic groups, the average reading score for Hispanic students at age 9 was higher in 2004 than in any other assessment year. The average score for Hispanic students at age 13 increased between 1975 and 2004. The scores for 17-year-old Hispanic students also increased between 1975 and 2004, but no measurable changes were seen between 1999 and 2004.

Female students scored higher on average in reading assessments than their male counterparts in 2004. The gender score gap at age 9 decreased from 1971 to 2004. In contrast, there has been no measurable change in the gender score gap at age 13 between 2004 and any previous assessment year. For 17-year-olds, the gender score gap in 2004 was larger than the gaps in 1980 and 1988, but showed no measurable difference from the gaps in other assessment years.

On the main NAEP reading assessment, public school fourth-graders scored higher in 2007 than in all previous assessment years. The average reading score was up 2 points since 2005 (based on unrounded scores) and up 5 points compared to the first main NAEP reading assessment in 1992 (table 121).

The 2007 main NAEP reading assessment of states found that reading proficiency varied among public school fourthgraders in participating jurisdictions (the 50 states, the Department of Defense overseas and domestic schools, and the District of Columbia) (table 121). The U.S. average score was 220. The scores for the participating jurisdictions ranged from 197 in the District of Columbia to 236 in Massachusetts.

Mathematics achievement results from the long-term trend NAEP indicate a significant improvement for ages 9 and 13 between 1973 and 2004, but not for age 17 (table 131). The average score at age 9 in 2004 (241) was higher than in any previous year—up 9 points from 1999 and 22 points from 1973. The average score at age 13 in 2004 was higher than in any other assessment year. The 5-point increase between 1999 and 2004 resulted in an average score in 2004 that was 15 points higher than the average score in 1973. The average score at age 17 was not measurably different from the average score in 1973 or 1999. The apparent difference in average mathematics scores at age 9 between male and female students in 2004 was not statistically significant. Males had higher average scores than females at ages 13 and 17. The gender score gaps for 13- and 17-year-olds were measurably different between 1973 and 2004.

On the main NAEP mathematics assessment, the average score for public school eighth-graders in 2007 was 18 points higher than in 1990, the first assessment year. The average score in 2007 was higher than the score in any previous assessment (table 135).

The 2007 main NAEP assessment of states found that mathematics proficiency varied among public school eighthgraders in participating jurisdictions (the 50 states, the Department of Defense overseas and domestic schools, and the District of Columbia) (table 135). The main NAEP results are reported in the Digest in terms of both average scale scores and achievement levels. The achievement levels define what students who are performing at Basic, Proficient, and Advanced levels of achievement should know and be able to do. The Basic level denotes partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade. The Proficient level represents solid academic performance for each grade assessed; students reaching this level have demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real-world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter. The Advanced level signifies superior performance. Overall, 70 percent of these eighthgrade students performed at or above the Basic level in mathematics, and 31 percent performed at or above the Proficient level. The percentage of students performing at least at the Basic level in math ranged from 34 percent in the District of Columbia to 86 percent in North Dakota.

From 1996 to 2005, the national average 4th-grade science score increased from 147 to 151; there was no measurable change in the 8th-grade score; and the 12th-grade score decreased from 150 to 147 (table 138). Certain subgroups outperformed others in science in 2005. For example, males outperformed females at all three grades. White students scored higher, on average, than Black and Hispanic students at all three grades in 2005. At 4th grade, average scores increased for White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander students between 1996 and 2005. At 8th grade, the average score for Black students increased, but no measurable increases occurred for other racial/ethnic groups. At 12th grade, there were no measurable changes in average scores for any racial/ethnic group when comparing results from 2005 with those from 1996. Asian/Pacific Islander 4thgraders' 2000 results are not included because reporting standards were not met.

In addition to student performance data available through NAEP, the Digest presents data from other surveys to provide additional perspectives on student achievement. Differences among demographic groups in the acquisition of mental skills have been demonstrated at relatively early ages (table 113). In 2003–04, about 64 percent of 2-year-olds demonstrated skill in expressive vocabulary, which measured toddlers' skill in being able to communicate using gestures, words, and sentences. A higher percentage of females (69 percent) demonstrated expressive vocabulary than males (59 percent). Also, a higher percentage of White 2-year-olds (71 percent) demonstrated expressive vocabulary than Black, Hispanic, or American Indian/Alaska Native 2-year-olds (56, 54, and 50 percent, respectively). The percentage of 2-year-olds from families with high socioeconomic status (SES) who demonstrated expressive vocabulary (75 percent) was higher than the percentage of children from low-SES families (52 percent). Similar patterns of differences were observed among minority and economically disadvantaged children at about 4 years of age (table 114). There was little difference between the average literacy scores for female (13.7) and male (12.7) 48- to 57- month-olds. White (14.2) and Asian (17.5) 48- to 57-monthold children had higher literacy scores than Black (12.0), Hispanic (10.7), and American Indian/Alaska Native (9.6) children. Also, high-SES children (18.0) had higher average literacy scores than low-SES children (9.2). These same patterns were observed among 48- to 57-month-old children with respect to average mathematics scores.

The SAT (formerly known as the Scholastic Assessment Test and the Scholastic Aptitude Test) is not designed as an indicator of student achievement, but rather as an aid for predicting how well students will do in college. Between 1997–98 and 2004–05, the mathematics SAT average score increased by 8 points, but it declined by 5 points between 2004–05 and 2007–08 (table 142). The critical reading average score was 3 points lower in 2007–08 than in 1997–98.

The average number of science and mathematics courses completed by public high school graduates increased between 1982 and 2005. The average number of mathematics courses (Carnegie units) completed in high school rose from 2.6 in 1982 to 3.7 in 2005, and the number of science courses rose from 2.2 to 3.3 (table 147). The average number of courses in career/technical areas completed by all high school graduates was lower in 2005 (4.0 units) than in 1982 (4.6 units). As a result of the increased academic course load, the percentage of students completing the 1983 National Commission on Excellence recommendations for college-bound students (4 units of English, 3 units of social studies, 3 units of science, 3 units of mathematics, 2 units of foreign language, and .5 units of computer science) rose from 2 percent in 1982 to 36 percent in 2005 (table 151).

School Violence

In 2005–06, about 86 percent of public schools had a criminal incident, which is defined as a serious violent crime or a less serious crime such as a fight without weapons, theft, or vandalism (table 158). The percentage of schools having a criminal incident in 2005–06 was about the same as the percentage of schools having an incident in 1999–2000. In 2005–06, some 78 percent of schools reported a violent incident; 46 percent of schools reported a theft/larceny; and 68 percent reported other types of incidents. Overall, there were 5 crime incidents reported per 100 students.

Revenues and Expenditures

The state share of revenues for public elementary and secondary schools generally grew from the 1930s through the mid-1980s, while the local share declined during the same time period (table 171 and figure 9). However, this pattern changed in the late 1980s, when the local share began to increase at the same time the state share decreased. Between 1986–87 and 1993–94, the state share declined from 49.7 percent to 45.2 percent, while the local share rose from 43.9 percent to 47.8 percent. Between 1993–94 and 2000–01, the state share rose again to 49.7 percent, the highest share since 1986–87, but declined every school year afterward until 2005–06, when the state share was 46.5 percent. Between 1995–96 and 2005–06, the federal share of revenues rose to 9.1 percent. The local share declined from 45.9 percent in 1995–96 to 42.8 in 2002–03, and then increased to 44.4 percent in 2005–06.

After adjustment for inflation, current expenditures per student in fall enrollment in public schools rose during the 1980s, remained stable during the first part of the 1990s, and rose again after 1992–93 (table 181 and figure 10). There was an increase of 37 percent from 1980–81 to 1990–91; an increase of less than 1 percent from 1990–91 to 1994–95 (which resulted from small decreases at the beginning of this period, followed by small increases after 1992–93); and an increase of 25 percent from 1994–95 to 2005–06. In 2005–06, current expenditures per student in fall enrollment were $9,154 in unadjusted dollars. In 2005–06, some 55 percent of students in public schools were transported at public expense at a cost of $746 per pupil, also in unadjusted dollars (table 175).


1 The pupil/teacher ratio is based on all teachers—including teachers for students with disabilities and other special teachers—and all students enrolled in the fall of the school year. Unlike the pupil/teacher ratio, the average class size excludes students and teachers in classes that are exclusively for special education students. Class size averages are based on surveys of teachers reporting on the counts of students in their classes.
2 Information on changes in GED test series and reporting is based on the 2003 edition of Who Passed the GED Tests?, by the GED Testing Service of the American Council on Education, as well as communication with staff of the GED Testing Service.