The basic math and reading skills of USA students have slowly, surely improved over the past 30 to 40 years, new findings show, with sharp increases among many of the nation's lowest-performing students — especially in the past four years.
That's the good news.
The bad news? Scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, out Tuesday, find that the stubborn, decades-long achievement gap between white and minority students shrank between the 1970s and the first part of this decade, but has barely budged since 2002, when the federal government compelled public schools to address it through No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
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In a few cases the gap has actually grown since 2002, according to NAEP.
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Overall scores have risen across the board since then, with an average three-point gain on a 500-point scale — and 10 points since the 1970s.
But the results also show that gaps in reading between white and black 17-year-olds, which shrank 26 points from 1971 to 2004, actually grew by two points in 2008. In math, the black-white gap shrank 13 points between 1978 and 2004, but was essentially unchanged in 2008.
Results were equally flat on the Hispanic-white achievement gap, the findings show.
For more than a decade, states have focused on shrinking skills gaps between ethnic and socio-economic groups. In 2002, Washington explicitly pushed schools to address the problem, requiring them to improve scores in annual math and reading tests through No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the congressionally mandated school reform law that is now up for reauthorization.
Tuesday's findings suggest that the effort has had mixed results. While gaps between ethnic groups barely budged between 2004 and 2008, in most cases the lowest-achieving one-fifth of students closed their reading and math performance gap with the highest-achieving one-fifth.
"Low-achieving students are making greater gains than high achievers," says researcher Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution, the Washington, D.C., think tank. "We can't say for sure why this is happening, but it is consistent with the focus of accountability systems, including NCLB, to raise failing students' learning to an acceptable level."
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says he's "pleased to see some recent progress," but, adds, "we still have a lot more work to do."
Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, an advocacy group for low-income and minority students, says U.S. schools "still fail to ensure that all of our young people get the kind of education that we know will increase their chances of success."
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