Black, Hispanic 4th Graders See Big History Gains Since 1994

By Erik W. Robelen — June 14, 2011 2 min read
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A new round of national testing data in U.S. history is out today. Here’s our big-picture story on the NAEP results.

The short version is that the vast majority of U.S. students still are not considered “proficient” in their nation’s history. Eighth graders made some gains, while 4th and 12th graders stayed about the same, making no changes deemed statistically significant.

But I wanted to dwell for a moment on one historical trend that seems especially striking. Since 1994, both black and Hispanic 4th graders have seen strong academic growth and have reduced the achievement gap with their white peers. (The gains between 2006 and 2010 were not considered statistically significant between 2006 and 2010, but dating back to 1994, they were.)

As always with NAEP, there are multiple ways to slice the data. Measured one way, the average score for black students increased 22 points (on the NAEP’s 0 to 500 scale) and 23 points for Hispanics. Meanwhile, for white 4th graders, the gain was 9 points.

Put in terms that I find easier to interpret, far fewer black and Hispanic 4th graders are scoring “below-basic” today. Back in 1994, roughly two-thirds of those students scored below-basic. Today, less than half are in that category. (The “basic” level on NAEP is defined as “partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade.”)

So, let’s take a look at the numbers. Here are the percentages of 4th graders across four racial/ethnic groups scoring below-basic, showing the decrease from 1994 to 2010:

• Black: Below-basic declined from 65 percent to 46 percent;

• Hispanic: Declined from 64 percent to 44 percent;

• Asian/Pacific Islander: Declined from 38 percent to 18 percent.

• White: Declined from 27 percent to 17 percent.

Education historian Diane Ravitch, who was invited by the National Assessment Governing Board to discuss the NAEP results, drew special attention to the gains for low-achieving groups, even as she cautioned that they may be largely explained by improved literacy.

“The improvement in 4th grade U.S. history is concentrated among the lowest-scoring groups, which is good news,” she wrote in a prepared statement. “But I suspect the gains reflect an improvement in reading skills, not an improvement in knowledge of history. Fewer than half of the students at this grade level have had more than two hours a week devoted to social studies, which may or may not mean history. More likely, they have learned about a few iconic figures and major holidays.”

I’ll slice the 2010 data for 4th graders one other way, examining the percentage of students in each category who scored proficient or above:

• Black: 8 percent

• Hispanic: 7 percent

• Asian/Pacific Islander: 23 percent

• White: 28 percent.

One last point. As I note in my story, the only grade level at which gains were deemed statistically significant compared with the last time the NAEP in U.S. history was administered, in 2006, was for 8th graders. Those gains appeared largely due to black and Hispanic students. However, when you go back to 1994, the gains for these students are far less dramatic than the historic improvements shown by 4th graders.

There’s far more data to mine in the new NAEP report. Take a look for yourself.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.