(NBC) -- The majority of eighth grade students are not proficient in math, reading and science.
The statistics have implications well beyond those youngsters' future.
Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice says their lack of education threatens our national security.
"The level of writing and analytical skills are not good. Even our best students are not acquiring them," she notes.
At NBC's Education Nation summit a big focus is on new standards in math and reading known as the "Common Core".
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hopes they will guide the U.S. in better preparing students for global competition.
"Now they're asking more of students in reading and in math, starting in primary grades all the way through senior year in high school, now for the first time in a long time students who graduate from high school will truly be college and career ready," Duncan says.
For educators, however, success will mean finding solutions to problems even outside the classroom.
Geoffrey Canada, president of Harlem Children's Zone, has been combating the effects of poverty on students for more than 20 years.
"We have young people growing up in communities where everything is against them terrible health care drugs and violence," he says.
The solution, educators say, requires a system that focuses on the whole child, and not just their test scores.