July 15, 2005
By SAM DILLON / NYTimes
WASHINGTON, July 14 - America's elementary school students made solid gains in both reading and mathematics in the first years of this decade, while middle school students made less progress and older teenagers hardly any, according to federal test results released on Thursday.
The results, considered the best measure of the nation's long-term education trends, show that 9-year-old minority students made the most gains. In particular, young black students significantly narrowed the longtime gap between their math and reading scores and those of higher-achieving white students, who also made strong gains.
Older minority teenagers, however, scored about as far behind whites as in previous decades, and scores for all groups pointed to a deepening crisis in the nation's high schools.
The math and reading test, known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Long-Term Trends, has been given to a representative national sample of students ages 9, 13 and 17, every few years since the early 1970's, virtually without modification, and social scientists study it carefully.
The results were from a test given to 28,000 public and private school students in all 50 states during fall 2003 and spring 2004. It was the first time the federal Department of Education had administered the test since 1999.
Nine-year-old students, on average, earned the highest scores in three decades, in both reading and math.
In the reading test, the average score of 9-year-old black students increased 14 points on a 500-point scale, from 186 in 1999 to 200 in 2004. Reading scores of 9-year-old white students rose 5 points, to 226 in 2004 from 221 in 1999. As a result the "achievement gap" between black and white 9-year-old students narrowed to 26 points over those five years from 35. The gap was 44 points in 1971.
The test measures students' skills, but does not include a passing grade or indicate whether they are performing at grade level. Over all, the 30-year trend in reading for 9-year-old students has been one of steady, modest increases, with the sharpest gains in the last five years.
Bush administration officials credited the president's signature education law, No Child Left Behind, with raising the scores.
But groups that have criticized the law, including both national teachers unions, noted that it had only been in effect a year or so when the test was administered. They said that state efforts to increase testing, bolster teacher training and reduce class sizes, as well as an increase in early childhood and kindergarten programs should also be credited.
President Bush celebrated the results Thursday before a largely black audience in Indianapolis, arguing that the federal law's emphasis on standardized testing should be extended to the upper grades.
"I'm proud to come here to talk about the new results," Mr. Bush said. "They're from the first long-term test, by the way, since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act. Over the last five years, American children have made significant gains."
"No Child Left Behind is making a difference in the elementary and middle schools, and I believe we need to expand this process to our high schools," he added.
Darvin M. Winick, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the test, agreed that there was "considerable good news to report."
But Mr. Winick, who was appointed by the former secretary of education Rod Paige, urged caution in attributing the gains narrowly to the federal law. Increased testing and reporting of student data and other reform efforts that got under way in many states during the Clinton administration probably also contributed, he said.
No Child Left Behind, which requires states to test students in third through eighth grades in English and math every year, and to break out scores of minority students, first took effect in fall 2002.
In math, 9-year-old blacks narrowed the 28-point gap separating them from white classmates in 1999, to 23 points in 2004.
Hispanic children also gained ground. The average reading score for 9-year-old Hispanics, for instance, rose to 205 in 2004 from 193 in 1999. In math, the average score rose 17 points, to 230 in 2004 from 213 in 1999. The math gap between 9-year-old Hispanic and white students narrowed to 18 points from 26.
"These results show that as a country we're headed in the right direction," Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in an interview.
Regardless of race, the scores of older students were less impressive, with a few exceptions.
Thirteen-year-old students, for instance, achieved math scores that on average were the highest in the history of the test. But their reading scores were no better than in 1980.
Seventeen-year-old students performed the worst. Average reading and math scores for that group were unchanged from the early 1970's.
Those low scores appeared likely to fuel a debate about how to improve the high schools.
No Child Left Behind requires states to test teenagers in one of their high school years, and Mr. Bush has proposed expanding the testing to include Grades 9, 10 and 11.
But Robert Schaeffer, the public education director of Fairtest, an advocacy group critical of standardized testing, said that more than 20 states have already introduced new high school tests in the form of exit examinations required for graduation. Many of those states have reported sharp score increases on those exams, and the National Assessment results released on Thursday seemed to call the validity of those state scores into question, Mr. Schaeffer said.
"Stagnant results for 17-year-olds indicate that soaring exit exam passing percentages reported by many states, such as Texas and Florida, reflect test score pollution, not real learning gains," Mr. Schaeffer said.
Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who has written on raising successful African-American children, said that among the tests' more discouraging findings were those concerning homework and reading trends.
Students who took the reading test were asked how many hours they had spent on homework the previous day, and the results showed that many were spending less time. The percentage of 13-year-old students devoting less than an hour on their homework, for instance, increased to 40 percent in 2004 from 36 percent in 1984. And the percentage of 17-year-old students who said they were not assigned any homework at all rose to 26 percent in 2004 from 22 percent in 1984.
For teenage students, the results showed a direct relation between higher scores and more time spent on homework.
The group of 17-year-old students who said they "never or hardly ever" read for fun increased to 19 percent in 2004 from 16 percent in 1999.
"Clearly, you learn by reading and studying, and not enough kids are spending that time," Dr. Hrabowski said.