U.S. students show incremental progress on national test

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted Education Secretary Arne Duncan about the number of teaching jobs that were saved by the Recovery Act of 2009. Duncan said "a couple hundred thousand teacher jobs" were saved.

The nation’s fourth- and eighth-graders made incremental progress on math and reading tests administered earlier this year by the federal government, according to data released Thursday.

The results detail performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, that U.S. students have taken every two years since the early 1990s. Also known as the Nation’s Report Card, it’s the country’s most consistent measure of K-12 progress.

The scores, on a scale of 0 to 500, show one- and two-point gains compared with the 2011 tests. Average reading scores for eighth-graders rose to 268 after stagnating for about a decade. In math, fourth- and eighth-graders scored averages of 242 and 285, respectively.

“We’re not seeing transformational change but modest progress,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a call with reporters.

The tests also show little progress has been made in narrowing the achievement gap between white students and their black and Latino counterparts, despite nearly a decade of federal law designed to close that margin. Florida was the only state to narrow the gap in scores between black and white students in both grades and subjects. Still, the 2013 scores are the highest recorded since the NAEP was first given 20 years ago.

The standardized math and reading tests, administered by the federal Education Department, were given this year to a representative national sample of about 377,000 fourth-graders and 342,000 eighth-graders in public and private schools.

The tests offer educators, parents and policymakers a sense of how the nation’s students are progressing over time but don’t explain the reasons. And combatants in the nation’s heated debate about education policy seized the chance to offer their own interpretations.

“It’s like a thermometer — it’ll tell you whether you have a fever, but it won’t tell you why,” said Tom Loveless, an expert on student achievement at the Brookings Institution. “It’s misused all the time by people who have agendas, both on the left and right. It’s very helpful to have measures of how we’re doing, but all of us want to know why, and these data are not terribly helpful in telling us why.

For the first time, the NAEP report is available in an interactive, online format that allows readers to customize the data and compare states in new ways.

Locally, the District of Columbia was one of just a few jurisdictions — joining Tennessee and Defense Department schools — to post significant increases in both grades and in both math and reading. The District’s NAEP scores, which showed the biggest improvements in the nation in three of four categories, remained below the U.S. average for states. It is difficult to compare the District with the states because it is entirely urban.

Both the District and Tennessee have made significant changes in education policy in recent years, from new teacher-evaluation systems to getting rid of tenure to encouraging the growth of public charter schools.

“Where we’re seeing huge progress is where people have taken on really tough work . . . whether investing more in childhood education, adopting higher standards or having a laserlike focus on teacher effectiveness,” Duncan said.

In Virginia, the average score in fourth-grade math increased by one point; in eighth-grade math, it dropped by one point. In fourth-grade reading, the average score increased two points; it did not change in eighth-grade reading. All of Virginia’s scores are above the national average.

David Foster, president of the Virginia Board of Education, said the recent flat trend detracts from the state’s long-term progress. For example, in 2013, 43 percent of Virginia’s fourth-graders scored high enough on the NAEP reading test to be considered “proficient,” compared with 31 percent in 1992. “You have to look at the big picture,” Foster said. “The trends, on the whole, all go well for Virginia,” he said.

Officials sounded a similar theme in Maryland, where math scores in both grades dropped slightly but reading scores in both grades increased modestly. All of Maryland’s scores are above the national average, but the two-point drop in fourth-grade math was the biggest drop in the country from 2011 to 2013.

“Maryland has had some of the largest increases in the nation over the past 10 to 20 years in both reading and mathematics,” said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. “We’ve also seen big improvements in the percentage of students scoring at the advanced level.”

Reinhard acknowledged that achievement gaps remain but added that state officials are hoping that the new Common Core academic standards in reading and math “will help move the bar in coming years.”

Math and reading scores for both grades have followed a similar pattern since 1990. There is jagged progress through the 1990s, a leap in average scores in most categories between 2000 and 2003 and incremental gains from 2005 on.

“There’s a flattening out of these trend lines, as if the nation's students had slowly driven up to a dusty plateau,” said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

He called the news “heartbreaking” for the Obama administration, which pumped more than $70 billion into education programs under the Recovery Act of 2009. “This administration has been very ambitious and very inventive in trying to lift our schools, and it is heartbreaking for the White House that these trend lines are essentially leveling off,” Fuller said.

Duncan dismissed that suggestion, noting that scores were up across the board.

“Much of that investment was trying to make up for cuts at the state level,” Duncan said. “We saved a couple hundred thousand teacher jobs in the face of significantly declining state and local investments, and we’re thrilled to see there was still progress. It’s encouraging, given how tough things were economically. It’s good to see progress. But, again, we have a long way to go.”

The best way to attack the persistent achievement gap between racial groups is to invest in quality early childhood education for low-income youngsters, Duncan said.

The strongest gains in NAEP scores coincided with the George W. Bush administration. Critics of the Obama administration said achievement has lost steam in part because Obama decided to issue waivers to states to exempt them from the most onerous requirements of the No Child Left Behind law.

“We’ve been in the process of dismantling accountability through the waivers,” said Eric Hanushek, an economist who specializes in education policy at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.

The administration began issuing waivers in 2011 as states clamored for relief from the law, and Congress was unable to agree on revisions. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 required states, for the first time, to test students annually in grades three through eight and once in high school; to publicly disclose those scores by race, income, disability and English language aptitude; and to improve student scores or face escalating penalties.

No Child Left Behind expired six years ago, but Congress has been unable to agree on a replacement. “The lack of any clear legislation to try to fix the problems of No Child Left Behind has been a huge problem,” Hanushek said.

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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