U.S. high-school students haven't achieved any significant gains in reading or math for nearly four decades, according to a new federal report that underscores the challenges the Obama administration faces as it pressures schools to raise standards to produce a more competitive work force.
The report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress -- a highly respected federal test also known as the "Nation's Report Card" -- looked at NAEP results for 9-, 13- and 17-year-olds since the early 1970s, when the tests in math and reading were first given.
Although the two younger groups have made progress in those subjects over that period, scores for 17-year-olds were virtually unchanged.
On a zero-to-500-point scale, 17-year-olds scored an average of 286 points in reading in 2008, up one point from 1971. The NAEP report said students with such scores have "intermediate skills" and are able to make generalizations about what they read.
Numerous research reports have shown NCLB has led to narrowed curriculum, teaching to the test, organizational chaos, educator resentment, and other educational damage. Public opinion surveys have shown increasing public dislike of the law and strong opposition to the law's emphases on testing and sanctions.
Summary of results from the NAEP 2008 Long Term Trend report, released April 28, 2009
Age 9 reading: reading scores did go up 4 points from 2004 to 2008, but they went up 7 points from 1999 to 2004 (more than 1.5 points/year). That is, the rate of improvement has slowed substantially since NCLB took hold compared to a period when at most NCLB might have had some impact at the very end of the period (2003-04). This tendency is common across subjects and age levels.
The black-white reading gap closed 3 points (statistically significant) while the Hispanic-white gap closed 4 points, also statistically significant. However, the Hispanic-white gap closed 7 points from 1999-2004, and the black-white gap closed 9 points from 1999-2004, about three times as fast. That is, while the racial gaps keep closing, the rate of closure has slowed dramatically. Similarly, there have been score gains for blacks and Hispanics, but the rate of improvement for both groups slowed in the 04-08 period compared with the 99-04 period. Age 13 reading: scores rose modestly but were approximately level with the scores of the early to mid 1990s.
The black-white gap closed 4 points from 2004-2008, but that gap closed 7 points from 1999-2004. The Hispanic-white gap actually widened by 2 points from 2004-08 after widening one point in the 99-04 period. Actual scores have improved for blacks, but not for Hispanics. Age 17 reading: again, scores gained modestly, but in this case they have not returned to the higher levels reached from the late 1980s through the 1990s.
The black-white gap widened by 2 points from 2004-08 after narrowing 2 points from 1999-2004; and the Hispanic-white gap widened by 4 points from 04-08 after widening by 5 points from 99-04, with NCLB failing to reverse a negative trend. The black-white gap remains far wider than it was at its narrowest, in 1988, and black scores are still below their 1988 peak. The same is true for Hispanics, with 1999 their peak year and the smallest gap with whites.
Age 9 math: the largest gains in the past were from 1986-90 (8 points) and 1999-2004 (9 points) - both 2 points per year gains. However, the 4-point gain from 2004 to 2008 averages only 1 point per year, showing that improvement rates have declined in age 9 math since NCLB took hold.
From 2004-08, the black-white gap widened by 2 points and the Hispanic-white gap remained unchanged, with no changes being statistically significant. Age 13 math: in the five-year span from 1999 - 2004 NAEP rose 5 points, or 1 point per year. In the four years under NCLB, from 2004 to 2008, NAEP gains were only 2 points, or half the rate of improvement in the previous period.
From 2004 to 2008, the black-white score gap closed 2 points and the Hispanic-white score gap remained unchanged, with no changes being statistically significant.
Age 17 math: score have been essentially flat and are now slightly lower than the previous high point in 1999, prior to NCLB.
The black-white gap closed one point from 2004-2008, while the Hispanic-white gap widened by two points, with no changes being statistically significant.
The NAEP results are at http://nationsreportcard.gov/ltt_2008/ with links to overall trends and trends by racial groups.