Achievement gaps for black and Hispanic youths have declined by substantial margins in reading and math since the early 1970s, according to new federal data issued Thursday. The gaps with their white peers, while still in evidence, have narrowed across all three age levels tested as part of a national assessment of long-term trends that offers a look at test data spanning some 40 years.
Overall, the nation’s 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds are better off academically today than they were in 1971 in reading, and in 1973 in math, the years when the long-term assessment was first administered, the results suggest. But for 17-year-olds, the average achievement levels are about the same when comparing 2012 data with results for the early 1970s in both subjects.
“I am pleased to see some significant progress over the decades to narrow the achievement gaps,” David P. Driscoll, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, said in a press release. “There are considerable bright spots, including remarkable improvement among black and Hispanic students, and great strides for girls in mathematics.”
For instance, the black-white gap in reading narrowed for 9-year-olds from 44 to 23 points on the National Assessment of Educational Progress scale, which goes from zero to 500. The Hispanic-white gap for 13-year-olds declined from 35 to 21 points in mathematics.
Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, said the improvements seen for black and Latino children “aren’t just minor, statistically significant but meaningless gains.”
The NAEP reading scores for both black and white 13-year-olds have risen in the past four decades. The data also show ebbs and flows in the achievement gap between the two races.
SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics
She was especially encouraged about the math results.
“While it might have seemed impossible 25 years ago for black and Latino 9-year-olds to reach the proficiency levels that white students then held, they have indeed reached those levels in math,” Ms. Haycock said.
White students also posted statistically significant gains in reading and math at all three age levels tested, when comparing the 2012 data with that from the early 1970s, the results show.
As for gender gaps, the 2012 data show no statistical difference between girls and boys in math achievement at ages 9 and 13. A small gap still exists for 17-year-old girls of 4 points on the NAEP scale, though that figure is half the gap it was in 1973.
‘Stagnant’ Achievement for 17-Year-Olds
The long-term-trend NAEP is different from the main NAEP results, which the U.S. Department of Education issues more frequently. Three key differences include the content assessed, the students selected for participation, and how the results are reported. For example, the main NAEP provides results for individual states and selected urban districts, while the long-term-trend data are solely at the national level.
Brett Houston, a member of the NAEP governing board and the principal of Shawnee Middle School in Shawnee, Okla., said that while he was encouraged to see some of the academic gains made by 9- and 13-year-olds, he was alarmed that similar growth was not seen for older students.
“Since the early 1970s, the average scores of 17-year-olds in both reading and mathematics have remained stagnant,” he said in a statement. Furthermore, he noted, that lack of improvement is seen even though the education levels of those students’ parents have increased.
In 1978, he pointed out, 32 percent of the parents of the 17-year-olds tested in math had graduated from college, compared with 51 percent in 2012.
“The growing emphasis that parents put on education is gratifying to see,” Mr. Houston said. “You would think [that] would translate into better performance for their children.”
Meanwhile, even as the historical trend suggests a narrowing of the achievement gaps for black and Hispanic students relative to their non-Hispanic white peers, those gaps have seen little movement since 2008, when the long-term exams were last administered. There were no statistically significant changes in the black-white achievement gap across all three age ranges in both reading and math. For Hispanic students, the only instance of a statistically significant narrowing of the gap was seen with 13-year-olds in math.
Although Ms. Haycock from the Education Trust signaled reasons for encouragement by the historical trends in the report, she cautioned that there’s plenty of work ahead.
“If we have a crisis in American education, it is this: that we aren’t yet moving fast enough to educate the ‘minorities’ who will soon comprise a ‘new majority’ of our children nearly as well as we educate the old majority,” she said. “At best, students of color are just now performing at the level of white students a generation ago.”
More than 26,000 students were tested in each subject for the 2012 results.
The new report provides some insights into coursetaking trends in mathematics. For example, the percentage of 13-year-olds taking algebra has doubled since 1986, to 34 percent. Another 29 percent reported taking prealgebra.
Also, the percentage of 17-year-olds taking precalculus or calculus more than tripled, to almost one-quarter of students. Not surprisingly, students who reported taking more advanced-math coursework earned higher scores on the NAEP in math.
A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2013 edition of Education Week