Black and Hispanic students have posted large gains in academic achievement since the early 1970s, according to new federal data. Along the way, the achievement gap with their white peers has narrowed in nearly all categories across the three age levels tested as part of a national assessment of long-term trends that looks at test data spanning some 40 years.
In most cases, though, the advances in closing that gap have largely stalled since the mid- to late 1980s, the data, issued late last month, indicate.
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 National Assessment of Educational Progress was first administered, the results suggest.
For 17-year-olds, the achievement levels are about the same when comparing 2012 data with results for the early 1970s in both subjects. But even at that age level, the overall trend line masks gains for black, Hispanic, and white students.
“There are considerable bright spots [in the new report], including remarkable improvement among black and Hispanic students, and great strides for girls in mathematics,” David P. Driscoll, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, said in a press release.
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
The average score for 9-year-old black students reached its highest level in reading since students were first tested, 206 on the NAEP scale, which goes from zero to 500. That’s an increase of 36 points from 1971. The black-white gap in that category narrowed from 44 to 23 points.
Hispanic 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds both gained 32 points in reading compared with the results in 1975, when data for Hispanics in that subject was first reported separately.
The gap between Hispanic 13-year-olds and their non-Hispanic white peers declined from 35 to 21 points in math from 1973 to 2012.
Little Gender Difference
Kati Haycock, the president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, said the improvements for black and Latino children “aren’t just minor, statistically significant but meaningless gains.”
Pointing to some of the math results, she noted: “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 made statistically significant gains in reading and math at all three age levels tested, when comparing the 2012data with scores from the early 1970s, the results show. (The NAEP study does not report results for Asian/Pacific Islander students or for American Indian and Alaska Native students because of limits on the data available, though they are part of the national averages.)
As for gender gaps, the 2012 data show no statistical difference between girls and boys in math at ages 9 and 13. A small gap of 4 points on the NAEP scale still exists for 17-year-old girls, though that figure is half the gap it was in 1973.
The long-term-trend NAEP differs from the main NAEP results, which the U.S. Department of Education issues more often. Three key differences are 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 in a prepared statement that he was alarmed that achievement for 17-year-olds was “stagnant” since the early 1970s.
But some experts caution that the national average obscures gains by individual subgroups.
“That’s a statistical phenomenon called Simpson’s Paradox,” Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said in an email. “Even though blacks, whites, and Hispanics have all made gains, the overall average has remained flat.
“Why? Because two of the groups (blacks and Hispanics) are lower- scoring, and even with their improved scores, as they become a larger proportion of the overall population, their scores bring the average down.”
White 17-year-olds saw the smallest gains since the early 1970s, climbing just 4 points in math and in reading.
Meanwhile, although the NAEP report highlights the narrowing of achievement gaps for black and Hispanic students relative to their non-Hispanic white peers since the testing program began, that doesn’t tell the whole story.
In most cases, the gaps today are no smaller than they were more than two decades ago, the data show. In fact, they’re sometimes larger, though not by amounts deemed statistically significant.
For example, the black-white reading gap for 13-year-olds reached its narrowest point in 1988, at 18 points, compared with 23 points in 2012. In math, the black-white gap for 9-year-olds was 25 points in 1986, the same figure as for 2012.
Robert Rothman, a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington research and advocacy group, said those data pose a puzzle for education experts.
“Why did the gap narrow so much between the early ‘70s and late ‘80s, and why hasn’t it narrowed since then?” he said.
The achievement gaps have shown little movement since 2008, when the long-term exams were last administered. No statistically significant changes occurred 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 reading. It closed by 5 points.
Ms. Haycock from the Education Trust said there’s plenty of work ahead. "[W]e 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.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as Blacks, Hispanics See Long-Term Progress