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The Latest From NAEP: Students' Progress Mixed

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Students are doing better in mathematics and science than they did a decade ago, but their reading and writing skills are mixed, according to the latest findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In general, the findings show that student achievement is about the same as it was in the early 1970s.

NAEP has been tracking student performance in the core academic subjects for more than 20 years. The new report is based on tests administered in 1992 to about 31,000 students in three distinct age groups.

Overall student performance in science declined sharply during the 1970s. While 17-year-olds still performed below their 1973 benchmark on the latest tests, 9- and 13-year-olds rebounded to their previous levels. In math, 9- and 13-year-olds performed better in 1992 than they did in 1973, while 17-year-olds only matched the earlier marks.

Commenting on the findings, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley said that "the nation's commitment to improve learning in math and science is starting to show some rewards.'' Still, he and others warned that the upturn leaves much to be desired. Although most students can add, subtract, and count their change, they still founder when it comes to more complex problem solving.

With one small exception, the NAEP results on students' reading and writing gave educators little to cheer about. Average reading achievement was about the same as in 1971. But the reading scores of 9-year-olds, which had improved sharply during the 1970s, were back to their original levels. Reading and writing performance overall improved little since 1984.

The one exception was an unusually sharp gain in the writing skills of 8th graders between 1990 and 1992. The jump was so substantial that officials delayed releasing the report to see if the change was due to a technical error. So far, the finding appears to hold up.

"In writing, we know that the number of 8th grade children who are receiving at least an hour of writing instruction per week has increased from 70 percent to 85 percent since 1988,'' Riley said. "This might be one explanation for the sharp rise in writing scores for 8th graders since 1990, but at this point we want to be cautious and wait for more trend results before coming to any certain conclusion.''

Federal officials attributed the hard-won gains in science and math, in part, to changes in the courses students are taking. Between 1986 and 1992, more 17-year-old students studied higher-level science and more 13- and 17-year-olds studied higher-level math. Technology and computer use also has soared.

To bring about the same kinds of improvement in reading and writing, Riley urged parents to spend more time with their children. "We know that attitudes and achievement in reading and writing are greatly influenced by what goes on in the home,'' he said. "Children who read and are read to, who see their parents read, who have a variety of reading materials in the home, and who write letters or notes at home read and write better.''

The study found that the number of students who reported the presence of at least four kinds of reading materials in their homes--books, magazines, newspapers, and encyclopedias--dropped between 1971 and 1992.

NAEP also reported that progress in closing the achievement gap between minority and white students has stalled since the mid-1980s. In 1992, both African-American and Hispanic youngsters performed, on average, significantly worse than their white peers.

"I am afraid that too many of our minority youth--young people who have the potential to learn--are using ignorance as a symbol of their own despair,'' Riley said. "We need to turn this type of thinking around.''

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