Good News for Achievement Gaps, Younger Students

National Journal

The latest results from that National Assessment of Educational Progress, released last week, show progress in how the country is educating its kids, at least the younger ones. Both nine- and 13-year-olds scored higher, in some cases much higher, in reading and mathematics last year than students their age in the early 1970s. In math, for example, nine-year-olds scored 25 points higher than nine-year-olds in 1973. In reading, 13-year-olds scored eight points higher than 13-year-olds in 1971.

The achievement gaps between girls and boys, and between white students and students of color, also narrowed. Although girls scored higher than boys in reading in all age groups, boys made larger score gains. The same thing happened to Hispanic and black students, who made larger gains that white students in both reading and math.

That must mean educators are doing something right, right? Most definitely. The report shows that the country's education system generally is on the right track. Whether it's going fast enough is a matter of debate. The same difficult problems remain—what to do with the disadvantaged students who still lag behind and how to teach advanced reading—but that shouldn't detract from the gains that have been made in the earlier grades.

Former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise agrees, but he thinks high schools are the weakest point in the system. They have not made significant gains since the 1970s, when the NAEP tests began. "These results show that most of the nation's 17-year-olds are career ready, but only if you're talking about jobs from the 1970s," he said. "Today's results are the nation's education electrocardiogram and show positive results for the early grades and increased performance by students of color, but the nation's high school students are in desperate need of serious attention." (Wise is now president of the Alliance for Excellent Education.)

What changes in education have allowed younger children to make such significant gains over the last 40 years? Why haven't they translated into the higher grades? Is the narrowed racial and gender achievement gap something to cheer about? Or is it too incremental? How have the demographic shifts over the last several decades changed the dynamics of student achievement measurements? What would move the dial for high school students?

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