U.S. students make small gains in reading and mathematics

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Cornelia Orr, the National Assessment Governing Board’s executive director, wants to see stronger gains in reading scores, which haven’t increased over time as much as math scores have.

“If you look at the math data, the movement of students from below the Basic level toward 'proficient' is good,” she said. “For reading, it’s much slower. Helping beginning readers get to be stronger readers needs more emphasis.”

Of standouts and destiny

Although national gains were small, several states saw significant gains since 2011’s test. The average reading score for California’s eighth-graders increased by seven points on the test’s 500-point scale. Mathematics scores increased by seven points for fourth-graders in Tennessee and the District of Columbia.

Florida is the only state whose achievement gap between black and white students narrowed at both grade levels and in both subjects. The gap between Hispanic and white students narrowed for mathematics at both grade levels in New Jersey and Rhode Island.

Educators will likely be looking at these states’ policies in hopes of discovering secrets to their success, Orr said. Buckley said that the Nation’s Report Card is “good at telling us where we stand, but not well-designed to tell us why.”

Mining the Nation’s Report Card data reveals an unsurprising correlation between income and achievement, with students eligible for the federal school lunch program generally scoring lower than their peers. Buckley, the National Center for Education Statistics’ commissioner, said the correlation between income and achievement doesn't always hold true.

“Massachusetts has always had high performance, but other states that have similar demographics don’t,” he said. “Demography isn’t destiny when it comes to education. It’s a factor that has to be considered in trying to explain results, but it’s not the whole story.”

International comparisons

The Nation’s Report Card is widely regarded as the best source of information about how state education systems are doing in comparison to each other. But how do our nation’s results stack up against those of other nations?

Not so well, according to Paul Peterson, director of Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance. Peterson is co-author (with Stanford University’s Eric Hanushek) of the new book “Endangering Prosperity: A Global Look at the American School.”

Peterson said his main take-away from the 2013 report is that improvement in student achievement isn’t happening as fast as it was during the first decade of the 21st century. Report data does show an uptick in scores beginning in about 2000, followed by a flattening trend from about 2005 on.

“Our research shows that the United States, while far behind, was at least moving forward at the rate typical for other industrialized nations,” Peterson said. “In the first 10 years of this century, we were keeping abreast.”

Peterson attributes the slowdown to the fact that many provisions of the “No Child Left Behind” federal education act are no longer being enforced because of waivers granted to states by the Obama administration.

“The waivers are eliminating all of the penalties associated with NCLB,” Peterson said. “The spotlight has been taken away from local school districts. They don’t have to worry about being identified as failing, so they’ve gone back to normal.”

Peterson said it's important to restore accountability. “ 'No Child Left Behind' was not the best policy,” he said. “But rather than abandon it, it needs to be enhanced."