'Nation's Report Card' Shows Improvement

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The nation's fourth- and eighth-graders continue to improve steadily in mathematics, and fourth-grade reading achievement is on the rise, according to test scores released yesterday. Black and Hispanic students are also making broad gains, though significant achievement gaps persist.

This year's scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed eighth-grade reading scores about the same as they were in 1998, confirming the belief of many educators that middle schools need more attention from reformers and lawmakers.

President Bush called the results "outstanding," and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings credited the five-year-old No Child Left Behind law for providing more accountability and more attention to needy students.

"We are going in the right direction, and we don't need to let up now," she said.

But Democratic lawmakers who oversee efforts to revise the law were more cautious. In a statement, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) said the scores were encouraging but showed that much work remains to close achievement gaps.

"With an improved law and better funding, I believe that we will see much stronger achievement gains among all students," he said.

Known as "the nation's report card," the assessment administered by the Education Department samples students in states and the District to measure trends. The tests, which are separate from exams used to rate schools under No Child Left Behind, were given this year to more than 702,000 students.

Yesterday's results show that math scores continued upward this year, though increases were not as large as in previous years. The proportion of fourth-graders who scored at or above proficient on the math assessment has tripled since 1990 -- to 39 percent, up from 13 percent. For eighth-graders, the proportion has more than doubled, to 32 percent from 15 percent.

Some experts credit the growing number of eighth-graders who are taking algebra or other challenging math courses as a reason for higher scores. Others say long-term efforts to bolster math instruction with better curricula and teacher development are paying off.

In reading, stagnant middle school scores continue to trouble educators. The percentage of eighth-graders who scored proficient or better was unchanged from 2005, at 31 percent, and has risen only two percentage points since 1992. The proficiency rate for fourth-graders rose to 33 percent, up from 31 percent in 2005 and 29 percent in 1992.

Some experts call for a stronger national commitment to adolescent literacy and a rethinking of reading instruction.

"Until all students can read at [a] higher level, many will be barred from full participation not only in education but also in the wider experiences of life," said Amanda P. Avallone, vice chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board and an eighth-grade English teacher in Boulder, Colo.

In the Washington area, Maryland and Virginia outperformed national averages, while the District fell far short.

¿ In Virginia, 42 percent of fourth-graders and 37 percent of eighth-graders scored at or above proficient in math, up from 39 percent and 33 percent, respectively, in 2005. In reading, 38 percent of fourth-graders and 34 percent of eighth-graders achieved proficiency or better, compared with 37 percent for fourth-graders and 36 percent for eighth-graders in 2005.

¿ In Maryland, 40 percent of fourth-graders and 37 percent of eighth-graders hit the proficiency mark or better in math, up from 38 percent and 30 percent, respectively, two years ago. In reading, 36 percent of fourth-graders and 33 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or better, compared with 32 percent and 30 percent in 2005.

¿ In the District, 14 percent of fourth-graders and 8 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or better in math, up from 10 percent and 7 percent, respectively, two years ago. In reading, 14 percent of fourth-graders and 12 percent of eighth-graders were proficient or better. The fourth-grade proficiency rate was up from 11 percent in 2005, and the eighth-grade rate was unchanged.

Eighth-grade reading scores in Maryland and the District might have been influenced by an increase in the percentage of disabled students excluded from testing. The percentage excluded stayed the same in Virginia.

Nationally, the results showed gains for most racial and ethnic groups. Black students showed improvement across the board, and Hispanic students posted their highest scores yet. That was notable, given that the proportion of Hispanic students in public schools has more than doubled since the testing began, said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a District-based advocate for improving education for disadvantaged students.

Still, achievement gaps remain. Since the early 1990s, Hispanic students' scores have lagged behind white students' scores by 20 or more points on a 500-point scale. Black students have narrowed some disparities. In fourth-grade reading, the score gap between black and white students is 27 points, five fewer than in 1992. The fourth-grade math score gap stood at 26 points, six fewer than in 1990. In eighth-grade math, however, the gap is 32 points, almost the same as it was 17 years ago.

"There's progress. You want to celebrate that," Haycock said. But with achievement gaps, "we still aren't picking up the pace the way we need to."

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