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NAEP Reports Modest Gains in Math and Science Scores

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Results from a new report on test scores show the nation's students making modest gains in math and science in recent years, while failing to significantly increase their reading and writing performance.

The brief progress report on student performance in those subjects, released last week by the U.S. Department of Education, is the latest study of scores in the long-term trends analysis that uses National Assessment of Educational Progress tests.

Students ages 9, 13, and 17 have been administered NAEP tests in math, science, and reading every two years for more than 20 years. Writing tests have been administered to students in grades 4, 8, and 11 since 1984. Math and science scores declined significantly during the 1970s for most age groups, but they have improved since.

The 1994 long-term NAEP study was not to be released until late next month. But campaign material for Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole recently charged that the scores were being "held hostage" until after the Nov. 5 election. Prompted in part by the accusation, Commissioner of Education Statistics Pascal D. Forgione Jr. said he decided to release a summary report last week.

The full report will still be released by the end of next month.

'Very Little Change'

The new report on the 1994 scores shows that while past gains are being maintained, little significant progress has been made since the 1992 scores.

In science, for example, improvement in the 13-year-olds' average score from two years ago was too small to be considered statistically significant. And while the 17-year-olds held the same science score as two years ago, they still haven't gotten back up to their level in 1969, the first year the test was given.

Math scores showed similar long-term results. Average scores of all three ages were about the same in 1994 as in 1992, with the 9- and 13-year-olds maintaining significantly higher scores than in 1973, when the math test began.

The reading and writing results are less encouraging. In 1994, none of the three age groups showed significant improvement over their average scores in the first years the tests were given. Two out of the three age groups saw some decline in reading since 1992, as did all three grades in the writing test.

"When we step back and look at the patterns over more than 20 years, what we see are some squiggles along the way but basically very little change," said Michael J. Guerra of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP.

Closing Gaps

The news on progress made toward closing gaps between racial and gender groups also is mixed.

Since the late 1980s, the gaps have increased between the reading scores of blacks and whites for all age groups and for math scores among 13-year-olds.

Gaps also continued to increase between 17-year-old white and Hispanic students in their math scores, although many of the other gaps between these groups have narrowed modestly since the tests were first administered.

But gains were reported in narrowing the gaps between the scores of boys and girls. No real gap existed in 1994 between 9-year-old boys and girls in science and math scores, and the gap has decreased since 1973 for 17-year-olds. Girls continue to score better than boys in reading, and boys generally get higher average scores in science and math.

Some observers say the results are brighter considering demographic shifts that have occurred since the congressionally mandated tests started. Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith pointed out that early improvements have held despite increases in child poverty and single-parent families.

"We need to do better for everyone, but we are doing better even when circumstances are getting harder," he said last week.

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