Long-Term Educational Progress Modest At Best

Published October 1, 2000

No one organized a tickertape parade when the latest results from an ongoing assessment of the nation’s long-term progress in K-12 education were released on August 24.

In fact, the best thing U.S. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley could say about the modestly improved results was that they were encouraging, given that today’s students are much more diverse than they were 30 years ago when testing started.

What concerned Riley and others most about the results was that the achievement gap between white and minority students, which had narrowed during the 1980s, yawned wider over the past decade.

“We have a persistent gap and we must look to close it, while lifting achievement for all,” said Riley when the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics released the 1999 scores for reading, mathematics, and science from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. NAEP tests have been given to 9-, 13-, and 17-year-old students since the early 1970s when they first were mandated by the U.S. Congress.

“Our nation’s children are not making the progress they should,” said House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman Bill Goodling (R-Pennsylvania). “Every parent should be concerned by these results,” he added, noting that many students “cannot read, solve simple math problems, or understand basic science.”

Overall Scores

Compared to the 1994 and 1996 results, achievement scores at all age levels are essentially flat. Over the longer term, there have been some gains in reading and mathematics, but the last two decades of science gains simply make up ground lost during the 1970s.

Using the scores of 17-year-olds as a measure of the overall effectiveness of K-12 education, the long-term trends may be summarized as follows:

  • reading scores are up 3 points (285 to 288)
  • mathematics scores are up 4 points (304 to 308);
  • science scores are down 10 points (305 to 295).

Using the scores of the 9-year-olds as a measure of the more immediate effect of policy changes, the short-term trends may be summarized as follows:

  • reading scores are up 4 points, with most of the improvement first occurring in the 1970s;
  • mathematics scores are up 13 points, with almost all of the improvement taking place in the 1980s;
  • science scores are up 4 points, with all of the improvement occurring in the 1980s.

Goodling pointed out that since 1965 the federal government had spent more than $120 billion on Title I remedial education programs funded by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Given the limited long-term improvements in reading, mathematics, and science shown in the NAEP results, he called for allowing parents, teachers, and communities “to try new and innovative ideas to increase student achievement.”

Learning Gap

Since the NAEP tests were first conducted in the early 1970s, scores for white students have consistently been higher than those for black and Hispanic students at all three ages and in all three subjects–a total of 18 comparison points.

The good news is that the learning gaps in 1999 for 17 of these comparison points are narrower than they were when testing was first started, as detailed in the NCES report NAEP 1999 Trends in Academic Progress by Jay R. Campbell, Catherine M. Hombo, and John Mazzeo.

The bad news, however, is that on 17 of the 18 comparison points, the learning gaps were first closed to their narrowest points during the years of the Reagan and Bush administrations. In a majority of cases, the improvements achieved by the 1980s were not sustained and most learning gaps widened during the 1990s.

The NAEP reading data, for example, show that by 1990, the average 17-year-old black student had improved to the point where his or her reading skills were about the same as a 13-year-old white student (see chart). There was no further improvement during the 1990s.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information . . .

The report by Jay R. Campbell, Catherine M. Hombo, and John Mazzeo, NAEP 1999 Trends in Academic Progress, is available for downloading in part or in full at the National Center for Education Statistics’ Web site at http://www.nces.ed.gov.