However, the achievement picture for older children is much more mixed – an indication that the
progress of far too many students from all racial backgrounds is continuing to fall short. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has tested 9-, 13-, and 17-year old students in reading and math through the U.S. Department of Education since the early 1970s.
The results for the 9-year-olds over the past five years presented by far the brightest picture. The gap between white and black students, which stood at 41 points (on a 0-500 scale) in 1971, narrowed to 26 points in 2004. Since 1999, whites gained 5 points in reading while African-American 9-year-olds advanced 14 points.
Math scores for white, Hispanic and African American 9- and 13- year olds were at an all-time high. Reading scores at those age levels showed similar trends, although the increases were somewhat less impressive than math scores.
The latest data were far more disappointing for older children. Test results have remained uniformly unchanged for 17-year olds over the three decades the test has been administered. Reading scores for Hispanic 17-year olds actually declined 7 points since 1999, and the gap between white and African-American 17-year olds also grew over that period.
These test scores are an early indication that increased accountability for results is beginning to work. Most of this latest NAEP testing occurred during Fall and Winter of 2003-2004. President Bush signed NCLB in January of 2002. By the time the federal Department of Education issued most of its important guidelines for complying with the law, most school districts had their curricula in place for the 2002-2003 school year. So these latest test scores account for less than one school year during which NCLB was in effect.
And while NAEP has been described by some as “the gold standard” for measuring student achievement, the mechanism by which it arrives at its results remains fuzzy to most observers. The test tracks trends in average scale scores based on samples for some 28,000 students nationwide. “A projection of a composite of a sample of a sample – ultimately measuring mythical students” was how one veteran Congressional education analyst described NAEP’s formula for attaining a representative sample of test scores.
Ultimately, the big challenge for American education remains sustaining all the way through high school the early gains in academic skill that elementary children of all races and ethnic backgrounds are beginning to show.
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