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U.S. students make small gains in reading and mathematics

Sally Jo Gilbert de Vargas, right, sixth-grade house administrator at Whitman Middle School in Seattle, tutors summer school students including Brook Engida, 13, left, in math, Thursday, June 28, 2012.
U.S. students improved slightly in reading and mathem
Sally Jo Gilbert de Vargas, right, sixth-grade house administrator at Whitman Middle School in Seattle, tutors summer school students including Brook Engida, 13, left, in math, Thursday, June 28, 2012. U.S. students improved slightly in reading and mathematics proficiency, according to The Nation's Report Card, an assessment of students in all states that happens every two years.
Ted S. Warren, AP

American K-12 students got better at mathematics and reading over the past two years, but not by much.

The 2013 edition of the Nation’s Report Card, which tests math and reading achievement of U.S. fourth- and eighth-graders every two years, showed an overall gain of about 1 percentage point in the number of students who read and do math problems proficiently.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the results were encouraging, though modest.

Test results showed no progress made in narrowing achievement gaps between the performance of white and black students or white and Hispanic students, Duncan said. And the U.S. is still behind top-performing countries, he added.

"We're not yet seeing a transformational change nationwide," he said.

However, the 2013 Nation's Report Card revealed the strongest performance in the history of the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, which was first given in 1990.

All states that implemented Common Core State Standards, which the Obama administration backs, showed improvement in at least one area of the test, and none saw a decline in scores, Duncan said. Those states are Kentucky, Georgia, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota and Mississippi.

Accumulating gains

The Nation’s Report Card is the chief continuing assessment of what students across the nation know. Tests are given periodically in various subjects to sample groups of students in each state. The tests change little over the years, providing a way to compare student results between states and over time.

For the first time, results of the 2013 Nation’s Report Card are available at an interactive website that lets parents and educators sift the data in many ways, including by state, ethnicity and gender. Visit to explore the data.

This year’s overall gains aren't large, but they are still good news, said Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.

“Gains tend to be small from one test administration to another, but they stack up,” Buckley said. “We don’t see giant jumps, and would be suspicious if we did.”

The Nation’s Report Card tests for mathematics and reading were first administered to U.S. public and private school students in 1990. Between 1990 and 2013, the number of proficient' math students rose by 7 percentage points for fourth-graders and eighth-graders. Reading scores improved over that period, too, though not as much — by 2 percentage points for fourth-graders and 1 percentage point for eighth-graders.

The test results fall into three achievement levels: “Basic” denotes partial mastery of grade-appropriate work, “proficient” refers to solid performance at grade level and “advanced” represents superior work. Since the tests were first given in 1990, the number of students below the 'basic' level steadily declined, and the number of 'proficient' students increased, especially for mathematics.

In 1990, 50 percent of fourth-grade students scored below the 'basic' level; in 2013, only 17 percent did. At the eighth-grade level, 48 percent were below the 'basic' level in 1990; 26 percent scored below the 'basic' level in 2013.

Mind the gap

The report card holds good news for Hispanic students, the only racial or ethnic group to improve mathematics scores at both grades 4 and 8. Worrisome achievement gaps between white students and those of other ethnicities and races persist unchanged, however.

“Over the last two years, neither the white/black or the white/Hispanic gap has narrowed,” Buckley said.

Cornelia Orr, the National Assessment Governing Board’s executive director, wants to see stronger gains in reading scores, which haven’t increased over time as much as math scores have.

“If you look at the math data, the movement of students from below the Basic level toward 'proficient' is good,” she said. “For reading, it’s much slower. Helping beginning readers get to be stronger readers needs more emphasis.”

Of standouts and destiny

Although national gains were small, several states saw significant gains since 2011’s test. The average reading score for California’s eighth-graders increased by seven points on the test’s 500-point scale. Mathematics scores increased by seven points for fourth-graders in Tennessee and the District of Columbia.

Florida is the only state whose achievement gap between black and white students narrowed at both grade levels and in both subjects. The gap between Hispanic and white students narrowed for mathematics at both grade levels in New Jersey and Rhode Island.

Educators will likely be looking at these states’ policies in hopes of discovering secrets to their success, Orr said. Buckley said that the Nation’s Report Card is “good at telling us where we stand, but not well-designed to tell us why.”

Mining the Nation’s Report Card data reveals an unsurprising correlation between income and achievement, with students eligible for the federal school lunch program generally scoring lower than their peers. Buckley, the National Center for Education Statistics’ commissioner, said the correlation between income and achievement doesn't always hold true.

“Massachusetts has always had high performance, but other states that have similar demographics don’t,” he said. “Demography isn’t destiny when it comes to education. It’s a factor that has to be considered in trying to explain results, but it’s not the whole story.”

International comparisons

The Nation’s Report Card is widely regarded as the best source of information about how state education systems are doing in comparison to each other. But how do our nation’s results stack up against those of other nations?

Not so well, according to Paul Peterson, director of Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance. Peterson is co-author (with Stanford University’s Eric Hanushek) of the new book “Endangering Prosperity: A Global Look at the American School.”

Peterson said his main take-away from the 2013 report is that improvement in student achievement isn’t happening as fast as it was during the first decade of the 21st century. Report data does show an uptick in scores beginning in about 2000, followed by a flattening trend from about 2005 on.

“Our research shows that the United States, while far behind, was at least moving forward at the rate typical for other industrialized nations,” Peterson said. “In the first 10 years of this century, we were keeping abreast.”

Peterson attributes the slowdown to the fact that many provisions of the “No Child Left Behind” federal education act are no longer being enforced because of waivers granted to states by the Obama administration.

“The waivers are eliminating all of the penalties associated with NCLB,” Peterson said. “The spotlight has been taken away from local school districts. They don’t have to worry about being identified as failing, so they’ve gone back to normal.”

Peterson said it's important to restore accountability. “ 'No Child Left Behind' was not the best policy,” he said. “But rather than abandon it, it needs to be enhanced."

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