National math, reading scores still lacking
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, left, stands with Washington Mayor Vincent Gray, as he speaks to reporters during a visit to Malcolm X Elementary School in Washington, Thursday. Duncan announced that today's fourth and eighth graders are doing better than their predecessors in math and reading. Today's fourth and eighth graders are doing better than their predecessors in math and reading, but despite record high scores its too soon to start celebrating. The vast majority of students still are not demonstrating solid academic achievement in either subject, according to the Nations Report Card, released Thursday. AP photo
WASHINGTON — Sometimes the best isn’t good enough: Most American fourth and eighth graders still lack basic skills in math and science despite record high scores on a national exam.
Yes, today’s students are doing better than those who came before them. But the improvements have come at a snail’s pace.
The 2013 Nation’s Report Card released Thursday finds that the vast majority of the students still are not demonstrating solid academic performance in either math or reading. Stubborn gaps persist between the performances of white children and their Hispanic and African-American counterparts, who scored much lower.
Overall, just 42 percent of fourth graders and 35 percent of eighth graders scored at or above the proficient level in math. In reading, 35 percent of fourth graders and 36 percent of eighth graders hit that mark.
Still, as state and federal policies evolve in the post-No Child Left Behind era, the nation’s school kids are doing better today on the test than they did in the early 1990s, when such tracking started, with more improvement in math than in reading. Students of all races have shown improvement over the years. Five states had a lower score than two years ago in at least one subject and grade: Massachusetts, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and South Dakota.
The results come from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, which is given every two years to a sample of fourth and eighth graders.
“Every two years, the gains tend to be small, but over the long run, they stack up,” said Jack Buckley, commissioner of the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics.
Buckley said he was “heartened” by some of the results, “but there are also some areas where I’d hoped to see improvement where we didn’t.”
Academic scholars have long debated what effects the law and other state-led reforms have had on test scores.
This year, Tennessee and the District of Columbia, which have both launched high-profile efforts to strengthen education by improving teacher evaluations and by other measures, showed across-the-board growth on the test compared to 2011, likely stoking more debate.
Specifically pointing to Tennessee, Hawaii and D.C., Education Secretary Arne Duncan said on a conference call with reporters that many of the changes seen in these states were “very, very difficult and courageous” and appear to have had an impact.
Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the biggest problem revealed in the results is the large gap that exists between the performances of students of different races.
There was a 26-point gap, for example, between how white and African American 4th graders performed on the math section. In eighth grade reading, white students outperformed Hispanic students by 21 points.
“We still have a situation where you have kids that are left behind. They aren’t given the same instruction. They aren’t given the same expectations as other kids,” Minnich said. He said it’s time for “doubling down and making sure the gaps get smaller.”
Duncan said too many African-American and Hispanic children start kindergarten a year or two behind and that early childhood programs are key to leveling the playing field. Duncan and Obama have lobbied for congressional passage of a preschool-for-all program.