What Test Results Suggest
This is no time for retreat on No Child Left Behind.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

THE GOOD news that America's elementary and middle school students have made impressive improvements in reading and math is unfortunately tempered by the dismal performance of high school students. After all, it doesn't help much if a child does well in fourth grade but graduates ill prepared for college or the workplace. Educational reforms that seem to be helping younger students must be strengthened and applied to the later grades, and, as the latest results from federal tests show, there's not a minute to waste.

According to the new long-term trend report on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), students at ages 9 and 13 did significantly better on 2008 tests than their counterparts of the early 1970s. Unfortunately, the scores of 17-year-olds stayed alarmingly flat over 35 years. There have been welcome gains in shrinking achievement gaps between white and minority students since 1971, although gaps did not change significantly from 2004 to 2008.

NAEP officials report only the "what," not the "whys" behind the scores. Improved performance of younger students, and particularly minorities, can be traced to the standards-based reforms embodied in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law and the state efforts that predated it. Minority students who were long overlooked by the education system still trail their white counterparts, but it's significant that black and Hispanic students of all age groups made greater gains in math than white students since 1973 and that black, white and Hispanic 9-year-olds all posted higher scores than in previous years.

When the long-term trend results are viewed in the context of other national assessments, an even stronger picture of NCLB's benefits emerge. Consider, for instance, evidence that the emphasis on reading and math has -- contrary to the hypothesis of some critics -- helped students to do well in other subjects such as science and history. NCLB is now up for reauthorization, and the NAEP report is a clear prompt not to retreat from its principles. There is a need for even more rigor in school curriculums, better efforts to improve teaching and, we hope, the adoption of common, national standards.

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