By Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN
(CNN) - Every couple of years, the National Assessment of Educational Progress releases a short-term snapshot of how students fare in science, civics or other subjects.
But it doesn't quite answer the big question: How are students really doing?
That's the job of a report released Thursday, "The Nation's Report Card: Trends in Academic Progress 2012." It's an assessment released every four years that tracks U.S. students' performance in reading and math since the 1970s. The 2012 assessment included more than 50,000 students from public and private schools. It tracks them at ages 9, 13 and 17, regardless of grade level, and compares their performance using tests - mostly multiple-choice questions - that take about an hour to complete.
Here are five things to know about academic progress since the 1970s, according to the 2012 report.
9-year-olds and 13-year-olds outscore 1970s counterparts
Indeed, those kids scored higher in reading and math. In reading, 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds improved at every level, so even the lowest-performing kids now are ahead of the lowest-performing kids then. In fact, kids in the low and middle range showed the greatest gains.
17-year-olds? Not so much
Seventeen-year-old students aren't scoring better in reading and math, but their scores aren't falling, either. In reading, the lowest-performing 17-year-olds made gains since the 1970s, as did lower- and middle-performing 17-year-olds in math. But scores overall are about the same as in the early 1970s - and that might not be all bad. In a conference call with reporters, Peggy Carr, associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics' assessment division, pointed out that there are far fewer dropouts than in the 1970s; even with more kids in school, performance has remained steady.
Editor's note: Lauren E. Bohn is a multiplatform journalist and assistant editor of the Cairo Review whose reporting is made possible in part by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Qena, Egypt (CNN) - In a deserted playground a few hundred miles south of Cairo, 13-year-old Asmaa Ashraf fiddles with a broken rusted slide. She is waiting listlessly for a lesson with her math tutor.
The bright-eyed teenager lives in a sepia-toned village in the province of Qena, a place of rural poverty and neglect. But she has big dreams about education. She wants to open a school one day.
"At my school, we'll learn," she says, brushing her hands longingly over the slide. "Teachers will show up and we'll be allowed to ask questions. We'll be allowed to draw with color."
Such aspirations, however, amount to fantasy for most youth in a country still struggling to land on its feet after being turned completely upside down.
Two and a half years after the country's uprising began, Egypt's fledgling democracy is stillborn, stubbornly stuck between its past and future. And as the government struggles to wade through the country's protracted political problems, Egypt's festering education system is orphaned - even though, with a growing youth population, it's key to the country's future.
In the World Economic Forum's latest report on global competitiveness, Egypt ranked near the bottom - 131st out of 144 countries - for quality of primary education. Egypt's literacy rate is 66%, according to a 2011 United Nations report. Meanwhile, a report by London think tank Chatham House says just $129 a year is spent on each Egyptian student; the United States, for example, spends 40 times as much.
By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
(CNN) - Lauren Astley knew her ex-boyfriend was having a hard time getting over their breakup.
Nathaniel Fujita hadn't wanted to end their three-year relationship. He made it clear in a long e-mail, asking her to give him a chance to find "a part of you that still loves me." But after several "negotiated truces," as her mother calls them, it was over in May 2011, a few weeks before their graduation from Wayland High School in Massachusetts.
But Lauren, 18, didn't stop worrying about Nate, especially as he withdrew from his friends. She was known for being kind, caring and deeply involved in the lives of friends - attributes her classmates lauded in her senior yearbook, along with her singing voice and warm smile. She discussed her ex-boyfriend's antisocial behavior with friends, and they decided together that she should be the one to reach out to him. After weeks of ignoring her texts, Nate, 19, finally agreed to meet her on July 3, 2011.
The next day, her body was found in a marsh about five miles from his home. He had strangled her with a bungee cord, stabbed her multiple times and slashed her throat. Her body was dumped in a nature preserve he knew from science class.
Nate was convicted of first-degree murder in March and sentenced to life in prison. But the quest for closure doesn't always end with a jury's verdict, especially in places like the couple's hometown of Wayland, which calls itself a "stable and progressive community, characterized by a legacy of civic engagement."
It's the kind of idyllic American suburb where "things like this aren't supposed to happen." In the wake of her death, community members pondered the warning signs. What did we miss? Could anybody have stopped this before it spiraled out of control?
Lauren's family saw new meaning in their "typical teen" drama: the fights, the constant cycle of breakups and reunions, the young man's retreat from social life after the breakup.
But as the couple's case shows, the line between adolescent drama and dating violence is a hard one to draw, especially in the moment.
Finding a new normal
Questions about what could've been done differently arose recently in Steubenville, Ohio, in Torrington, Connecticut, and in other communities where teen dating violence and sexual assault drew national attention. Blame bounces around the victim's clothes, the amount she drank, whether she "put herself in that situation," and to the perpetrators, parents and society for fostering a culture in which violence among teens - sexual and otherwise - makes regular headlines.
The Steubenville case, in which a teen was sexually assaulted as others watched, revived discussion around the importance of bystander education - teaching people to intervene safely in behavior that promotes sexual violence, said Tracy Cox with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
School violence prevention programs typically focus on risk-reduction by teaching girls not to be victims and boys not to be rapists, with no other roles to play. Even though bystander intervention not a new concept, some schools, advocacy groups and corporations are pushing it with renewed vigor in an effort to deter violence.
The goal is to challenge perceptions of "normal behavior" and make teens aware of the nuanced interactions that create a hostile climate
By Julian Zelizer, CNN contributor
Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."
(CNN) - Everyone talks about our broken political system. Washington is too polarized. Money dominates politics. Politicians don't know how to lead. Citizens are not as attentive to governance and public policy as they should be. Americans either ignore politics or see it is one more form of entertainment, "American Idol" on steroids.
As a result, politicians get away with all kinds of misstatements and truths, in part because the electorate is so gullible.
How do we make our democracy work better?
Political reform will be essential to making sure that our institutions operate effectively. The news media needs to do a better job of separating truth from fiction and backing away from the increasingly partisan outlook of journalism. Civic organizations need to do more to make sure that voters are active in politics and, at a minimum, that they actually vote on Election Day.
But education is also going to be a key part of the equation. The way in which we teach our citizens in schools and colleges is how we shape our electorate from a very young age. If we do not do a good job imparting the basics that are needed to be virtuous members of our democracy, the system will never be repaired.
Unfortunately, there is some bad news on this front. A recent study by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences sounded the alarm that vital subjects such as history, literature, language, civics and the arts are in trouble.
According to the report, the percentage of students majoring in the humanities has dropped in half, falling from 14 in 1966 to 7 in 2012. In 2010, only 45% of high school students were able to demonstrate a basic understanding of U.S. history.
By Melanie Hicken, CNNMoney
New York (CNNMoney) - Firms offering student loan "debt relief" are deceiving borrowers into paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars for access to free government programs, according to a recent consumer watchdog report.
With student loan debt soaring to record levels, many graduates are turning to companies that claim to help reduce or manage their debts. However, some of these firms are charging borrowers initial fees as high as $1,600 and monthly fees as high as $50 to secure services that these borrowers could otherwise get for free, according to the report from the National Consumer Law Center.
While the government offers several relief programs free of charge, such as repayment plans based on a borrower's income level, getting through the red tape is "rarely easy," according to the report. And many borrowers are unaware that the programs even exist in the first place.
To conduct its investigation, undercover NCLC "mystery shoppers" contacted 10 randomly selected student loan relief companies, analyzed websites and reviewed a variety of actual contracts and consumer complaints. They found that the majority of firms surveyed didn't inform potential clients that the products they offered - most frequently loan consolidations - were actually free government programs, or the companies buried that information in the fine print.
By Claire Potter, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Claire Potter is a professor of history at the New School for Public Engagement. She blogs at Tenured Radical for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
(CNN) - New York University's 2010 graduating class owed a total of more than $600 million in student loans. It's unlikely the university will forgive them. But NYU has forgiven portions of mortgages they have extended to President John Sexton, other university executives or star faculty - money that has been used to buy properties in Manhattan or vacation homes in the Hamptons.
Does this shock you?
Or, how about this: Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, a former executive vice president at NYU, received an "exit bonus" of $685,000. Just to put this in perspective, Lew's NYU exit bonus alone would have provided free tuition for 275 undergraduates, or a little more than 17% of the incoming class.
The revelations about lavish compensation packages at New York University (my alma mater) have raised a firestorm of criticism. Faculty critics have already publicized NYU's top executive salaries: Sexton takes home nearly $1.5 million, Vivien Lee, the vice dean of science gets $1.1 million, and Robert Grossman, the dean of the medical center, makes a whopping $3.5 million.
By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
Washington (CNN) - The Supreme Court side-stepped a sweeping decision on the use of race-conscious school admission policies, ruling Monday on the criteria at the University of Texas and whether it violates the equal protection rights of some white applicants.
The justices threw the case back to the lower courts for further review.
The court affirmed the use of race in the admissions process, but makes it harder for institutions to use such policies to achieve diversity. The 7-1 decision from the court avoids the larger constitutional issues.
By Ed Payne, CNN
(CNN) - A transgender first-grader who was born a boy but identifies as a girl has won the right to use the girls' restroom at her Colorado school.
The Colorado Rights Division ruled in favor of Coy Mathis in her fight against the Fountain-Fort Carson School District.
Coy's parents had taken her case to the commission after the district said she could no longer use the girls' bathroom at Eagleside Elementary.
In issuing its decision, the state's rights division said keeping the ban in place "creates an environment that is objectively and subjectively hostile, intimidating or offensive."
Coy's mother, Kathryn Mathis, said she's thrilled that Coy can return to school and put this behind her.
The first-grader has been home-schooled during the proceedings
"Schools should not discriminate against their students," Mathis said. "All we ever wanted was for Coy's school to treat her the same as other little girls. We are extremely happy that she now will be treated equally."
By Jennifer Liberto, CNNMoney
Washington (CNNMoney) - When Kelly Mears graduates from Union College in the summer of 2015, she will have $100,000 in student loans.
Armed with a political science degree, Mears will join more than a million Americans who have racked up breathtaking amounts of student debt.
Mears is also one of 7 million undergraduates caught in the middle of a debate in Washington over government-subsidized student loans, as interest rates are set to double to 6.8% from 3.4% on July 1.
"It just seems to be a part of the growing American experience to go to school, graduate and work off that debt for the rest of your life," Mears said.
Super-borrowers with $100,000 of student loan debt aren't the norm. The average student graduates with $27,000 of loan debt.
The New York Fed said those who borrow $100,000 or more are about 3.1% of borrowers nationwide. But it's easy to see how students get there, with four years of private college tuition running $116,000 on average, according to the College Board.