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
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
The Good News
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:
achievement among nine-year-olds increased 3.3 percent.
among nine-year-olds increased nearly 3.9 percent.
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.
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
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
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
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.