National Report Card Shows Big Gains in Math


American parents can breathe a sigh of relief: their children are making substantial strides in math, and slower but still significant gains in reading, according to new national test results released Tuesday (Sept. 25).

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings immediately touted the results from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests as proof that President Bush's 2002 No Child Left Behind Act is working despite complaints that the law is inflexible and too focused on testing.

"It shows that we're going in the right direction and we don't need to let up now," Spellings told reporters in a conference call.

In nationwide tests given to about a tenth of public and private students this year, fourth- and eighth-graders posted record scores in math. Only 32 percent of eighth-graders and 39 percent of fourth-graders were rated proficient, meaning students can deal with challenging subject matter, but those figures also were record highs. At a news conference, Kathi M. King, a math teacher in Oakland, Maine, and member of the board that sets policy for the NAEP tests, called the findings "spectacular."

"No matter how you look at the results - for kids on free and reduced lunch, or minority students - in many cases the cumulative gain has been extraordinary," she said. "We're nowhere near where we want to be, but we're taking baby steps and we're going to get there."

Fourth-graders also scored higher than ever in reading, but eighth-grade reading scores showed only a slight increase over the last test in 2005.

NAEP, also known as "the nation's report card," tests a cross-section of every state's fourth- and eighth-grade students in reading and math every two years. States have been required to participate in NAEP since 2003 as a condition of No Child Left Behind, which also requires schools to show annual improvement in reading and math on state tests or face sanctions.

Massachusetts schools again led in all categories, both in average score on the 500-point tests and in percentage of students rated proficient, and bettered its performance from 2005, when it also led all categories. For example, 58 percent of its fourth-graders were rated proficient in math this year, compared with 49 percent two years ago.

Other top performers included New Hampshire, New Jersey and Vermont, which each reported 51 percent of fourth-graders proficient in math, and Minnesota, with 50 percent proficient.

Mississippi was the chief laggard in both math and reading and for both grades. Only 21 percent of its fourth-graders and 14 percent of its eighth-graders were proficient in math. Louisiana and New Mexico both consistently ranked near the bottom.

NAEP is set on a 0-500 scale score and rates students advanced, proficient, basic and below basic. On fourth-grade math, a minimum score of 249 is required to be considered proficient.

The increase in scores is significant because changing demographics could have made it harder to raise scores. Greater numbers of students with disabilities and English language learners took this year's test, although all states were allowed to exempt some of these students. In fourth-grade reading, the average exemption rate was 6 percent, but New Mexico exempted 12 percent of special needs students.

One of No Child Left Behind's main goals is to close the achievement gap between white and minority students. On that, results were mixed. Scores for most ethnics groups have increased since 1992. But since the last NAEP test in 2005, the gap between white and black students narrowed only slightly, while the gap between white and Hispanic students was unchanged. The gaps also remain substantial, about 26 points in reading.

As No Child Left Behind undergoes a tough reauthorization in Congress this year, its supporters will point out that NAEP scores have risen in almost every category since the 2003 test, with gains posted on both the 2005 and 2007 tests.

But those increases have been smaller than in the years prior to the law. From 2003 to 2007, fourth-grade NAEP math scores rose five points, while from 2000 to 2003, as states were setting up their own testing systems, scores rose nine points. Fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math showed similar figures.

"NAEP shows educational improvement across the nation slowed significantly since NCLB went into effect," Monty Neill, the co-executive director of FairTest, a group that opposes standardized testing, said in a statement. "That deflates the administration's claims that federal law is driving school improvement."

This year the main disappointment was eighth-grade reading, which with a score of 263 mostly was flat over recent years.

"Where the federal government's making investments, we're seeing gains," said Jamie Fasteau, the director of policy development at the Alliance for Excellent Education, an advocacy group that promotes high school reforms. "And where we're not seeing reading gains is where we haven't been investing dollars."

Fasteau said the bulk of federal dollars for reading initiatives go to K-3 programs such as Reading First and not middle and high school programs like Striving Readers.


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