WASHINGTON – Students are doing better in elementary and middle school, but key indicators show little progress among high school and college students, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said.
"We've got a long way to go," Spellings said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We've turned the tide. We've started. We've gone from heretofore flat to making some real progress, where we've focused."
She cited a few of what she called leading indicators to make her point. Spellings was presenting the figures Monday at an education conference sponsored by the Aspen Institute, a think tank.
Kids in elementary and middle school have made progress because that is where the focus has been, Spellings told the AP.
The No Child Left Behind education law — an approach that George W. Bush campaigned on when he ran in 2000 and signed as president in 2002 — has a goal of making sure every student can read and do math at their grade level by 2014.
That goal is still a long way off, but fourth- and eighth-graders are doing better. Last year, tests showed 33 percent could read and do math at grade level, compared with 25 percent in 2000, according to Education Department data.
Minority students are doing better, too. The percentage of black and Hispanic students who could read and do math at grade level was 35 percent that of white children last year, the department found. But that has increased from 23 percent in 2000.
No Child Left Behind requires annual state tests in reading and math in grades three through eight. The law penalizes schools that fail to make progress.
Spellings called for the same type of accountability for high school and college students. The numbers there have largely stayed flat:
—Last year, the high school graduation rate was 74 percent, compared with 72 percent in 2000.—The share of college-bound students ready for a college course was 42 percent, the same as in 2000.
—The share of younger workers, age 25-34, with a bachelor's degree was 31 percent, compared with from 29 percent in 2000.
"High school graduation and college readiness are very much linked, and college completion is very much linked to college readiness," Spellings said. "And we have barely begun to fight on this."
She hopes the education figures will help rally supporters of No Child Left Behind to keep and to build on the core principles of the law.
It will not be easy. Polls show many people have an intensely negative view of No Child Left Behind. Teachers' unions and other critics strongly dislike the law.
In the meantime, Congress and the next president will be in no hurry to tackle No Child Left Behind, which was due for a rewrite last year; the economy, the war and health care are more pressing concerns.
Spellings hopes the education figures she cited will become an annual report.
"One of the things that I really worry that we haven't done is a good enough job of continuing to frame for the American people what's at stake," she said.