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American Education Gets Graded on Results

Math and reading are the major subjects that educators look at closely when evaluating students' academic performance. And according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 9-year-olds in this country are doing better in both areas than they have in 30 years. The new study is good news for America's elementary schools. However, it also raises questions … along with hopes of achieving similar improvements among students in higher grades.

In spite of the large jump in the number of students who come from non-English speaking homes, the average reading score of 9-year old students was higher than any year since testing began in 1971. "White students showed an increase of more than 10 points since the first assessment (in 1971). Almost ½ the increase came since 1999," says Grover Whitehurst, of the National Center for Education Statistics, which conducted the study.

Black and Hispanic children also made significant advancements in reading. "Black students posted a 30-point increase since 1971," Mr. Whitehurst says. "Again, almost half the increase occurred since the last assessment. For Hispanic students, we see the same pattern once more."

Although these students still trail their white classmates in reading test scores, the gaps between major ethnic groups are getting smaller. "Scores for both Black and White students have improved since 1971, but scores for black students have improved more," Mr. Whitehurst says, "leading to a narrowing of the gap. When we look at the scores of White and Hispanic students, we see a similar pattern since the first assessment -- higher scores and a narrowing gap.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, NAEP, is considered the Nation's Report Card. And Grover Whitehurst says the 2004 Report Card shows general improvement in 9-year-olds' math skills as well. "White students achieved an increase of more than 20 points since the first assessment (in 1973) and about 1/3 of that increase came since 1999," he says. "Black students posted a 34% increase since 1973. About ½ of that increase occurred since the last assessment. For Hispanic students, the 17-point increase since 1999 was more than ½ the total increase of 28 points over the total time period.

And, just as in reading skills, the improved scores for young Black and Hispanic students helped narrow the math gap between them and their white counterparts.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings says she's very encouraged by the results of the latest NAEP, especially with respect to those narrowing achievement gaps. "Hispanic and African American students are faring particularly well," she says, "even as our student body becomes more and more diverse across the country. So, it's really, really, very encouraging news."

Secretary Spellings says the report is proof that American education is on the right track, crediting President Bush's 'No Child Left Behind' initiative. "We've put the policy elements in place," she says. "We've asked states to establish standards, annual measurement systems, disaggregated data. We've invested resources around the early grades and we're getting results."

However, Darvin Winik, chairman of the National Assessment governing board, urged caution about attributing the 9-year-olds' progress to Mr. Bush's 2002 education initiative. He points out that the achievement gap began narrowing several years before 'No Child Left Behind' became law. He also says the 13-year-old group, in middle school, showed just a slight improvement in math and reading scores, and the 17-year-olds -- the ones about to graduate -- didn't improve their scores in either subject. The educator says more work is needed to boost student performance at upper grade levels.

"The achievements of our high school students do not appear to be significantly improving," Mr. Winik says. "The inability of many students who receive a diploma, and then are unable to succeed in post-secondary endeavors, has to be troublesome. The need for continual remediation in both reading and mathematics raises serious questions about high school performance and programs that we aren't equipped to answer, but somebody should start looking at."

The 2004 NAEP results are based on a representative sample of more than 28,000 public and private school students at ages 9, 13 and 17. A more detailed report that looks at a larger sample -- more than a million kids -- is expected to come out this fall. Darvin Winik says such reports are key tools for measuring academic progress and helping develop new initiatives for all educational levels.