Math, Science Achievement Up, But Reading, Writing Are Mixed

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Students are doing better in mathematics and science than they did a decade ago, but the changes in reading and writing performance are mixed, the U.S. Education Department reports.

In general, achievement is about the same as it was in the early 1970's, according to the latest findings from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

"The nation's commitment to improve learning in math and science is starting to show some rewards," U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said at a press conference held here last month to release the data.

NAEP has been tracking student performance in the core academic subjects for more than 20 years. About 31,000 students were tested in reading, writing, math, and science in 1992 to produce the current report.

Science performance declined sharply during the 1970's but has now rebounded to its previous levels, although 17-year-olds still perform below their 1973 benchmark. In math, 9- and 13-year-olds performed better in 1992 than they did in 1973, while 17-year-olds performed just as well.

Even so, officials warned, the upturn leaves much to be desired. Although most students can read, write, add, subtract, and count their change, they still flounder when it comes to more complex problem-solving.

Mixed Results

The news about reading and writing was mixed. Average reading achievement is at least as high, if not higher, than in 1971. But the reading scores for 9-year-olds, which had improved sharply during the 1970's, are now back to their original level. And both reading and writing performance have improved little since 1984.

The one exception appears to be 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 while they explored whether the trend was due to a technical error. So far, the findings appear 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," Mr. 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."

Changes in Coursetaking

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 students studied higher-level science at age 17 and higher-level math at ages 13 and 17. Technology and computer use also soared.

To bring about the same kinds of improvement in reading and writing, Mr. 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 in 1992, fewer students reported having at least four types of reading materials in their homes--books, magazines, newspapers, and encyclopedias--than in 1971. The amount of time spent reading for fun remained unchanged.

Stalled Progress

Progress has also stalled since the mid-1980's in closing the achievement gap between minority and white students. In 1992, both black and Hispanic youngsters, on average, performed significantly less well than did white students.

"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," Mr. Riley said. "We need to turn this type of thinking around."

Studies have found family income to correlate strongly with student performance. As part of NAEP, the Education Department had proposed field-testing two parent surveys in 1995 that would ask about family income and other school-related information. But those plans have run into a snag.

Last month, the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, passed a resolution against the proposal. Board members expressed concern that parents would view the questions as an invasion of their privacy. They also worried about the length, reliability, and cost of the surveys.

Federal officials have been dissatisfied with the accuracy and reliability of the information on socioeconomic status that they now collect from students.

"One of the questions that's always asked is, 'What is the relationship between NAEP scores and socioeconomic status?' said Emerson J. Elliott, the commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics, which operates the assessment. "We don't have a good measure of that at all, because all the information we get is always from students, where we ask for things like parents' level of education or proxies like how many books are in the home."

Mr. Elliott said he would like the two bodies to agree on the surveys, although the N.C.E.S. has the authority to proceed on its own. The proposal will be discussed again at the board's next meeting in November. The center has no plans yet to include the surveys as part of its regular NAEP assessments.

Copies of the "1992 National Assessment of Educational Progress Trend Report," prepared by the N.C.E.S., are available from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15250-7954. The stock number is 065-000-00672-3. Call the G.P.O. Order Desk at (202) 512-1800 for prices.

Vol. 14, Issue 01

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