Student Performance Reaches 70’s Levels, NAEP Study Finds

By Robert Rothman — October 02, 1991 6 min read
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WASHINGTON--American students in 1990 had regained much of the ground they had lost in the 1970’s and 1980’s and were achieving at roughly the same level as students 20 years earlier, a new study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress has found.

The study, scheduled to be released this week, examines trends in student achievement over 20 years in science, 17 years in mathematics, 19 years in reading, and 6 years in writing.

In science and math, it found, the proportion of students who could perform more complex problems increased substantially over the past two decades.

Although 17-year-olds’ average science achievement in 1990 was lower than that in 1969, performance by all students in that subject increased during the 1980’s, and students’ average math proficiency was significantly higher in 1990 than it was in 1978.

In reading, the report found, most students were performing at about the same level as those in 1970, but the average proficiency of 17-year-olds was higher in 1990 than in 1975. In writing, meanwhile, 8th-graders’ performance had declined since 1984, while that of 4th and 11th graders remained stable.

The report also found that students from the Southeast and members of minority groups made progress since the 1970’s.

But, it found, Southern students continue to lag behind those from other regions, and white students still outperform blacks and Hispanics in all subjects.

And, it found, for the first time since NAEP began testing, that black students’ scores in reading at all ages declined between 1988 and 1990.

Emerson J. Elliott, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which oversees NAEP, noted that, despite the encouraging trends, overall performance has not improved over the past two decades and remains low.

“The overall message is there is essentially not much change [since 1970],” Mr. Elliott said. “If you couple that with the messages coming from the National Education Goals Panel and the National Assessment Governing Board, what we are saying is, we’re no place near where we need to be.”

‘Good News’

A Congressionally mandated assessment, NAEP has since 1969 tested a national sample of students in a range of subjects. It is currently operated by the Educational Testing Service under contract to the Education Department.

Results from the 1990 math assessment, which included the first state-by-state data on student achievement, were released in June. Results from the 1990 assessments in reading, writing, and science are expected to be issued next year.

But in addition to those data, which are based on new tests that reflect changes in curriculum and testing techniques, NAEP also tests a smaller sample of students at ages 9, 13, and 17 in most subjects, and grades 4, 8, and 11 in writing, using old formats to gauge trends over time. Many experts consider the trend studies NAEP’s most useful function.

The new data show that, in science, student performance declined between the early 1970’s and the early 1980’s, and picked up again during the last decade.

Despite these gains, however, the 1990 science performance of 17-year-olds lagged behind that of high-school students in 1969.

The performance of black students at all ages increased at a faster rate than that of the overall population, the report notes. The average science achievement of black 9-year-olds was higher in 1990 than in 1970, and that of black 17-year-olds was at the same level as that 20 years earlier.

In math, the trends in achievement showed a similar pattern, the report found. After a decline in the 1970’s, the average math performance of 9- and 13-year-olds in 1990 was higher than it was in 1973, while that of 17-year-olds was at the same level as it had been 17 years earlier.

Similarly, blacks and Hispanics at age 13 showed significant gains in math performance between 1973 and 1990, and black 17-year-olds had a higher proficiency in the subject in 1990 than those 17 years earlier.

Carl J. Moser, a member Of NAEP’s governing board, called the trends in math and science “good news.”

“Clearly,” he said, “our efforts to improve educational opportunity have had some success--not complete by any means--but there has been progress.”

Higher-Level Skills

Mr. Moser, director of schools for the Lutheran Church, Missouri synod, also noted that the improvements in math and science have occurred at all levels of proficiency.

“It is clear that gains in basic skills have not taken place at the expense of more complex reasoning and analytical skills,” he said.

Specifically, the report notes that the proportion of 9- and 13-year-olds who were able to apply basic scientific information rose substantially between 1977 and 1990. Some 57 percent of the middle-school students in 1990, compared with 49 percent 13 years earlier, could perform such problems, the report notes.

Meanwhile, the number of 9-year-olds demonstrating beginning math skills and understanding rose dramatically between 1978 and 1990. Some 82 percent of those students could perform such problems in 1990, compared with 70 percent a decade earlier.

However, the report also notes, virtually no 9- or 13-year-olds reached the highest level of math proficiency, or the ability to solve multi-step problems and algebra, and the relatively small number of 17-year-olds demonstrating such skills--7 percent--has remained constant since 1978.

“The proportion of students at NAEP’s higher proficiency levels is still quite small,” Mr. Moser said.

Trends in Reading

In contrast to the science and math results, the trends in reading and writing are “very disappointing,” according to Phyllis W. Aldrich, another member of NAEP’s governing board.

“Despite our efforts over the past 10 years,” said Ms. Aldrich, a curriculum coordinator in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., “nothing much seems to be happening, and, in too many cases, things seem to be getting worse.”

Specifically, the report notes that, in reading, 9-year-olds’ gains in the 1970’s were offset by declines during the 1980’s, and the reading performance of such students in 1990 was the same as that in 1971.

Performance by 13-year-olds, meanwhile, remained stable during that period, while performance of 17-year-olds increased slightly between 1975 and the mid-1980’s and has remained stable since then.

The report also notes that the proportion of students at higher levels of reading proficiency has remained stable or declined over the past decade.

The number of 9-year-olds demonstrating “partially developed skills and understanding dropped from 68 percent in 1980 to 59 percent in 1990, the same percentage as in 1971, it notes.

As in math and science, black and Hispanic students have closed the gap between their reading performance and that of white students, the report notes. However, it points out, except for 17-year-olds, this has occurred because minority performance has increased while whites’ performance remained stable.

And, in what Ms. Aldrich called a “very disturbing” finding, blacks’ reading achievement declined over the past two years.

Mr. Elliott of the N.c.E.S. cautioned that a one-time drop in black students’ performance may-not indicate a downward trend. “It bears watching, but it’s not consistent with the pattern from 1980 to 1988,” he said.

‘Disappointing’ Results

Student performance in writing, however, was “very disappointing,” Mr. Elliott said.

Overall performance by 4th and 11th graders remained stable from 1984 to 1990, he noted, while that of students in grade 8 was “flat out down.”

Moreover, the report notes, achievement in that subject was relatively low to begin with. Although a majority of 4th graders wrote narrative stories judged “minimal” or better, only 9 percent to 12 percent wrote at the “adequate” level or higher.

The full report on the trends in the four subjects is expected to be released next month.

A version of this article appeared in the October 02, 1991 edition of Education Week as Student Performance Reaches 70’s Levels, NAEP Study Finds


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