Last week, the National Center for Education Statistics released its new "long-term trend" data on math and reading achievement, known as the "Nation's Report Card," or National Assessment of Educational Progress. The new data show statistically significant improvements among 9-year-olds in reading and math and among 13-year-olds in math. The U.S. Department of Education praised the results, and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said, "Today's Report Card is proof that No Child Left Behind is working."
Applause is in order, but not a standing ovation. The improvements among 13-year-olds are slight, and 17-year-olds' achievement was stagnant in reading and math. Scrutinizing the results gives a mixed picture of the degree of academic achievement among our nation's schoolchildren.
What Was Tested?
For more than 30 years, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has provided benchmark data on how the nation's students are performing in math and reading. NAEP consists of two tracks of testing. The first testing sequence is administered every two years and evaluates the academic proficiency of 4th, 8th, and 12th graders on a variety of subjects.
The second testing sequence, and the subject of last week's release, is a long-term trend assessment that is designed to yield information about the basic changes in the achievement of America's youth over time, at ages 9, 13, and 17. To that end, the substance of the test has been fairly constant from the early 1970s, although it was modified somewhat for the most recent 2004 assessment. It is administered less frequently than the subject test; before 2004, it was last administered in 1999. In 2004, only math and reading were assessed.
The Good News
Overall, academic achievement in both math and reading has increased over the past five years for 9-year-olds. Thirteen-year-olds saw their math achievement increase slightly. Specifically, the following improvements were statistically significant:
Reading achievement among nine-year-olds increased 3.3 percent.
Math achievement among nine-year-olds increased nearly 3.9 percent.
Math achievement among thirteen-year-olds increased 1.8 percent.
In addition, the gap between black and white students has narrowed slightly. For example, in 1999, white 9-year-old students scored 18.8 percent higher on reading than black students; this gap narrowed to 13.0 percent by 2004. The implication is that reading achievement gains for black 9-year-olds are occurring at a somewhat faster rate than for their white counterparts. That's good news.
The Bad News
These NAEP results show progress for some but not all students, and as Secretary Spellings noted, there is "certainly room for improvement." Considering how much money is spent on education and how American students compare internationally, "room for improvement" is an understatement. Educators and policymakers should be concerned that scores for all age groups have been relatively flat since 1971. Even after trillions of dollars in expenditures and the particularly dramatic spending increases of recent years, American students do not stack up well against students from other countries. In the latest international assessments, American 4th graders ranked 12th globally in mathematics, behind students from such countries as Japan, Russia, and England. Since 1995, there has been no significant progress in 4th graders' scores on this international assessment.
High school achievement has been no more impressive. For example, American 15-year-olds taking the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams score below average on math and science compared to students from other OECD countries. In reading, American students do slightly better, scoring about at about the OECD average. It is no wonder that corporate executives like Bill Gates are lamenting the performance of U.S. high schools; in February 2005, he called the institution "obsolete," and said that, if left as-is, the high school will stymie the future economic competitiveness of the United States.
The long-term NAEP assessment is not designed to detect the specific effects of individual policy measures, particularly in a case as recent as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The long-term NAEP is useful, however, for detecting how educational policy trends in general and over time influence student achievement. Over the past decade, policies and public debate have centered on results rather than process. Over the past five years, the debate over NCLB and its implementation have focused on consequences for results, particularly by giving parents of students in underperforming schools the options of supplementary educational services and public school choice.
The big question is how to continue building on the recent achievement gains. The gains reflected in this assessment have been too slow in coming. In order to promote greater achievement, policymakers should build on the trends that appear to yield these gains: focusing on results and imposing consequences for unsatisfactory results. Schools should be more accountable to parents, and parents should have the option to move their children from low-performing schools to better ones.
The NAEP long-term results show some promising developments in America's schools. Now it is time to build on this improved trend for 9-year-olds and carry it through the school years. The worst outcome would be for the achievement gains to fade over the next few years as America's fourth graders continue through the system. Ideally, 4th-grade gains should translate into 8th-grade and 12th-grade gains in coming years.
Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst in the Center for Data Analysis, and Jonathan Butcher is Research Assistant in Domestic Policy Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.
 U.S. Department of Education, "Spellings Hails New National Report Card Results," Press Release, July 14, 2005, at http://www.ed.gov/news/pressreleases/2005/07/07142005.html.
 In addition to nationwide data, this NAEP subject test provides achievement-level scores for students in all states and certain large urban districts.
 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, "Average mathematics scale scores of fourth-grade students, by country: 2003," available at http://nces.ed.gov/timss/TIMSS03Tables.asp?Quest=1&Figure=1.
 OECD, Learning for
Tomorrow's World: First Results from PISA 2003, at
 Bill Gates, "Prepared
Remarks to the National Education Summit on High Schools" February
26, 2005, at