Since NCLB, Math and Reading Scores Rise for Ages 9 and 13

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Math and reading scores for 9- and 13-year-olds have risen since the 2002 enactment of No Child Left Behind, providing fuel to those who want to renew the federal law and strengthen its reach in high schools.

Performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which offers a long view of U.S. student achievement, shows several bright spots. Nine-year-olds posted the highest scores ever in reading and math in 2008. Black and Hispanic students of that age also reached record reading scores, though they continued to trail white peers.

But results released yesterday were disappointing for high school students. Seventeen-year-olds gained some ground in reading since 2004, but their average performance in math and reading has not budged since the early 1970s.

The mixed record comes as President Obama and Congress are preparing to overhaul the federal education law, which mandated a massive testing regime. The Obama administration, saying the country's competitive edge depends on boosting student achievement, is pushing to strengthen standards to ensure that more teenagers are ready for college.

Former education secretary Margaret Spellings said the results vindicate former president George W. Bush's signature education initiative. The law focuses largely on elementary and middle schools, requiring annual testing in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.

"It shows that we are on the right track. It is not an accident. It is by design. It proves the policy principle," Spellings said. "Accountability is working. Where we've paid attention, grades 3 through 8, we are getting the best results. Where we have paid less attention, high school, we're not."

The assessment, known as the "nation's report card," is given to a sampling of 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds. About 26,000 students were tested in 2008 in each subject.

In reading, average scores for all three age groups are on the rise: to 220 points for 9-year-olds on a 500-point scale, up from 216 in 2004; to 260 for 13-year-olds, up from 257; and to 286 for 17-year-olds, up from 283.

Nine- and 13-year-olds have made reading gains since 1971, but scores for 17-year-olds were virtually unchanged. The same trends held in a comparison of math scores from 1973 to 2008.

The report also found little progress since 2004 in closing the achievement gaps that separate black and Hispanic students from their white peers. But experts pointed out that scores for younger minority students in many cases have been on the rise in the past decade.

"A lot of the upward movement has come from children from minority backgrounds or low-income backgrounds, and that's what you'd expect from the focus of NCLB," said Grover Whitehurst, former director of the Education Department's research arm. "This is a long and hard slog, and this is evidence that movement is in the right direction."

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement that he was encouraged by the gains but that "we still have a lot more work to do."

He added: "Our focus on raising standards, increasing academic rigor and improving teacher quality are all steps in the right direction."

The federal stimulus will funnel $100 billion into early childhood education, public schools and colleges, the largest one-time influx of funding ever into the educational system. The administration is calling for states to compare student performance with international benchmarks and develop better data systems to track achievement.

Jack Jennings, president of the D.C.-based Center on Education Policy, said the Obama administration's rhetoric on school improvement shows support for the core principles of No Child Left Behind. Details might change, he said, but accountability and testing are likely to endure.

"It's safe to say there will be some test-driven federal accountability law," Jennings said. He said there will be debate over the frequency and type of testing as well as the techniques to improve schools that fall short.

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