The latest edition of the Nation’s Report Card provides grounds for optimism that state educational standards backed by required testing under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) are leading to steady achievement gains in elementary schools. But results of the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) deepens the mystery as to why secondary-school students show much less progress, especially in reading.
There were major improvements in math achievement at the fourth grade. Percentages of students who scored at or above “basic” or “proficient” were higher than all previous NAEP rounds since these assessments started in 1990. Almost as much progress was made from 2000 to 2005 (up 12 points) as was achieved from 1990 to 2000 (up 13 points) – and gains by Hispanics (up 18 points) and African-Americans (up 17 points) led the way.
Those numbers helped narrow the achievement gap between whites and racial/ethnic minorities, which is one of the prime objectives of NCLB. Differences of 20 points or more remain, but the trend is toward the closing of that gap.
At the fourth-grade, reading scores increased, but less than math scores. Again, gains by Hispanic and black students led the way. Hispanics’ reading scores rose 13 points from 2000 to 2005, while African-Americans’ scores gained 10 points. Those numbers helped produce overall progress higher over the past five years (up 6 points) than in the previous eight years (down 4 points).
At the eighth grade, there were continuing improvements in math with scores at an all-time high, but the picture for reading was not pretty. Average reading scores rose just 2 points since 1992 but have fallen 1 point since the last assessment in 2003. Percentages of students who scored at or above NAEP’s “basic” or “proficient” levels also have fallen since 2003. No racial/ethnic group had an increase since the last assessment and the scores of whites actually declined.
The chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, Darvin M. Winick, makes the point that empirical research is needed on reading at the middle and high school levels:
“As a country,” he said, “we need to know whether there is a fundamental weakness in instruction, lack of success in overcoming influences beyond the control of the school systems, or merely insufficient lapsed time for students with better preschool and early grade preparation to reach eighth grade. NAEP results cannot answer the question, ‘Is it poor instruction, lack of preparation, or a combination of both?’”
With a NAEP analysis of 12th-grade achievement scheduled for next year, the phenomenon of the secondary slump may come into clearer focus. Until then, the improving performance of pupils in the early grades gives reason for hope that accountability for results will pay off in the long run in U.S. education. One particularly bright spot is the sharply rising achievement of Hispanic children, in reading as well as math – an indication that the attention being paid to helping English Language Learners is paying dividends.
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