The nation’s 9-year-olds have made considerable gains in reading and mathematics over the past five years, turning in the highest scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress long-term trend tests in those subjects since they were first given more than three decades ago.
Minority students and those scoring in the lowest percentile on the tests given during the 2003-04 school year showed the most dramatic progress among 9-year-olds, narrowing the achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their white peers, and the highest and lowest performers, to the smallest margins ever. Average scores among 13-year-olds also showed improvement in math, but not in reading, while the performance of 17-years-olds on both tests was flat since the tests were last given in 1999.
But while U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings hailed the results as “proof that No Child Left Behind is working; it is helping to raise the achievement of young students of every race and from every type of family background,” other federal officials and experts cautioned that there is no evidence that the progress is linked to the 3-year-old law.
The types of standards and accountability measures guiding the federal law have likely led to progress in student achievement, according to Darvin M. Winick, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP. But, as Mr. Winick pointed out, many states had already begun making such changes and focusing intensely on improving reading and math instruction after the 1999 national assessment and prior to the federal law’s implementation.
“There’s certainly been a greater emphasis on the elementary school years and getting kids started off on the right foot,” said Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the arm of the U.S. Department of Education that administers the test. But that effort, he said, started with the states and was bolstered by the federal law.
The trend tests were first given in 1971 and are the nation’s best ongoing indicator of how student achievement in those subjects has changed over time. Trend tests in writing and science were discontinued in recent years because of technical problems with the reliability of the writing results and changes in the sciences that make the test of that overarching subject outdated. The trends tests are separate from the main NAEP, given periodically in a number of core subjects since 1990 to national and state samples of students. Results of the 2005 main NAEP in math and reading are due in the fall.
While the trend tests are given to nationally representative samples of public and private school students, too few private schools and students volunteered to take the tests to ensure the reliability of their results.
High School Students Still Lag
Since the early 1970s, younger students have tended to make relatively large gains on the trend math test, while scores among teenagers remained mostly stagnant. This time, however, the improvement among the youngest age group, 9-year-olds, was particularly dramatic, with average math scores jumping from 232 to 241 on a 500-point scale—the largest single gain since 1973, when the long-term NAEP was first administered in that subject.
“There’s no question, those are outstanding results,” declared Tom Loveless, the director of the Brown Center at the Washington-based think tank, the Brookings Institution. He has studied previous NAEP math scores in detail. “It’s been true for a while now. … We’ve been seeing the larger increases among younger students.”
Average math scores among 13-year-olds rose from 276 to 281—also the largest gain for that age group since the long-term NAEP’s inception. The performance among 17-year-olds, however, was less than stellar, with that age group turning in an average score of 307, 1 point lower than in 1999. The 2004 math score for that age group was barely higher than in 1973, when the average mark was 304.
In reading, 9-year-olds scored an average 219 on a 500-point scale, up from 212 in 2004 and 208 in 1971. The performance of older students has changed little in more than three decades. The average score for 13-year-olds, for example, was 259 in 2004, statistically the same since 1980 and just 4 points more than in 1971. The average score of 17-year-olds—285 points—was the same as in 1971, although their results had improved slightly from 1988 to 1992 before declining.
Mr. Winick noted that significant demographic changes in the student samples have taken place over the life of the tests. The proportion of Hispanic students taking the tests, for example, has tripled since 1971, but the effect of those changes on the results has not been fully studied.
Administration of the next long-term trend tests in math and reading is scheduled for 2008.