Published Online: March 5, 1997


Students Post Higher NAEP Math Scores

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More American students have upgraded their math skills, but most still lag behind world-class standards, concludes the nation's latest academic report card.

The results of the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress in mathematics, released here last week by the Department of Education, show that students in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades scored better in math--with each group gaining several points--than they did when the test was last administered in 1992.

The gains reflect a pattern of advances in math achievement that began in the 1980s, federal officials said. But they credited the latest gain, in part, to efforts to implement academic standards in many states.

"The [improvement] tells me that our efforts to raise standards are starting to get down into the classroom," Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said at a press conference held to announce the results. "This is good news ... and another sign that we may be turning the corner when it comes to improving American education."

Fundamental Skills

The results show that 4th graders scored an average of 222 points on a 500-point scale, a 4-point improvement since 1992.

Eighth graders, on average, gained 5 points, up to 271 points, since 1992, and saw an 8-point jump since 1990.

The nation's 12th graders averaged 304 points, a 5-point increase since 1992.

Achievement is also up for all three grades, with more than 60 percent of all students performing at or above the basic-performance standard, meaning that they have demonstrated at least partial mastery of the fundamental knowledge and skills identified for each grade. But most students are not proficient--identified by their command of challenging subject matter--and few displayed advanced knowledge.

Nationally, only 20 percent of 4th graders, 23 percent of 8th graders, and 16 percent of 12th graders were proficient in math as measured by the 1996 test.

Exceeding the basic level were 62 percent of 4th graders, 61 percent of 8th graders, and 69 percent of 12th graders.

Two percent of 4th graders, 4 percent of 8th graders, and 2 percent of 12th graders demonstrated advanced knowledge.

NAEP, which has been given since 1969, is the only ongoing, nationally representative assessment of what a sampling of U.S. students in grades 4, 8, and 12 knows in key academic subjects. Mandated by Congress, it is run by the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics.

The latest test was given to a representative sample of more than 20,000 students in all three grades.

Racial Differences

Boys and girls in the 8th and 12th grades scored about the same. But boys surpassed girls in 4th grade by 4 points, a somewhat surprising showing given all the emphasis in recent years on beefing up girls' math skills. Boys also showed greater proficiency than girls at each grade level.

Minority and disadvantaged students also posted gains, but they continued to trail behind their white, middle-class classmates.

According to the report, fewer than 10 percent of African-American and Hispanic students in the 4th and 8th grades were proficient in math. They also scored at least 25 points lower on the test than white students.

Clearly, as 2000 approaches, the nation's children are still far from reaching the national education goals that call for students to show "competency over challenging subject matter" and to be "first in the world in mathematics and science achievement."

The low levels of proficiency pose a continuing challenge to reaching those goals, said William T. Randall, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees naep.

But he also expressed optimism about prospects for further gains in math. "I think we have the momentum," said Mr. Randall, who recently retired as Colorado's education commissioner. "Because of this confluence of organizational and teacher support for mathematics education, of all the subject areas this is where we have the best chance of making it."

Although voluntary national standards have been written for all subject areas, math standards have been around the longest and are more likely than others to have been incorporated into a school's curriculum. NAEP uses a framework heavily influenced by the standards devised by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

'Far From Finished'

Results from last year's test varied widely among the 47 participating states and jurisdictions. Scores for 4th graders ranged from a low of 187 for the District of Columbia to a high of 232 for Maine, Connecticut, and Minnesota. California, Louisiana, and Mississippi, while improved, also finished at the bottom.

The proportion of 4th graders showing proficiency ranged from a high of 31 percent in Connecticut--a gain of 7 percentage points over the 1992 test--to a low of 3 percent in Guam.

As for 8th graders, those in North Dakota, Maine, Iowa, and Minnesota scored the highest--284 points. Minnesota's students were the most proficient at 34 percent, compared with a low of 5 percent in the District of Columbia.

North Carolina, Michigan, and Texas showed the greatest improvement. North Carolina and Michigan 4th graders averaged 11 points higher than those who took the test in 1992. Among 8th graders, Michigan students averaged a 10-point increase in that time. North Carolina's 8th graders registered a 9-point increase since 1992 and a 17-point jump since 1990.

Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. of North Carolina said that the positive trend in his state should continue if lawmakers continue their bipartisan support of the state's education reform initiatives.

"If this state does what I'm asking them to do over the next four years ... you'll see our state shoot ahead in academic performance," Mr. Hunt declared.

Despite the improvements, some officials cautioned that the job of improving schools is far from finished.

"This is confirmation that we are doing something right," Gov. Angus S. King Jr. of Maine said of his state's showing. He added, however, that "the [proficiency levels] should be a reality check."

"It indicates that we are doing well relative to our neighbors," Gov. King said, "but it also raises serious questions about how we are doing as a country."

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