WASHINGTON – Some progress. Still needs improvement.
The nation's report card on math and reading shows fourth- and eighth-graders scoring their best ever in math and eighth graders making some progress in reading. But the results released Tuesday are a stark reminder of just how far the nation's school kids are from achieving the No Child Left Behind law's goal that every child in America be proficient in math and reading by 2014.
Just a little more than one-third of the students were proficient or higher in reading. In math, 40 percent of the fourth-graders and 35 percent of the eighth-graders had reached that level.
The figures were from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
"The modest increases in NAEP scores are reason for concern as much as optimism," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "It's clear that achievement is not accelerating fast enough for our nation's children to compete in the knowledge economy of the 21st century."
There were few noticeable changes in the achievement gap between white and black students from 2009. While the gap is smaller than in the early 1990s, the new test results reflect a 25-point difference between white and black fourth- and eighth-graders in reading and fourth-graders in math.
However, Hispanic students in eighth grade made some small strides to narrow the gap with white students in both math and reading. In reading, the gap was 22 points in 2011 compared to 26 in 1992 and 24 in 2009.
The reading test asked students to read passages and recall details or interpret them. In math, students were asked to answer questions about topics such as geometry, algebra and number properties and measurement.
The Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics administers the test. On a 500-point scale, both fourth- and eighth-graders scored on average one point higher in math in 2011 than in 2009 and more than 20 points higher than in 1990, when students were first tested in math. In reading, the score for fourth-graders was unchanged from two years ago and four points higher than in 1992, when that test was first administered. Eighth-graders in reading scored on average one point higher in 2011 than in 2009 and five points higher than in 1992.
The results come as states are clamoring for waivers to No Child Left Behind, the 2002 law that was heralded as a way to primarily help low-income and minority children. President Barack Obama in September said that since Congress had failed to rewrite the law, he was allowing states that meet certain requirements to get around it. Forty states, in addition to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have said they intend to seek waivers, according to the Education Department. Meanwhile, there has been some progress in both the House and Senate in rewriting the law, although it's unclear whether Congress will act this year.
Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, said the tests indicate students showed more growth in reading during the 1990s when states had more control over school accountability efforts, and that is likely to stoke the debate over whether states should again have more control.
This was the first year that test administrators separated Asian students from a broader category that previously included Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students. In both reading and math, the average scores for Asians were higher than for other ethnic or racial groups. Nearly two-thirds of Asian fourth-graders and nearly 60 percent of Asian eighth-graders posted scores at or above proficient in math. About half of all Asian students in both grades scored at the proficient level or higher in reading.
Among the states:
— Hawaii was the only state in which fourth- and eighth-grade students improved from 2009 to 2011 in both reading and math.
— New Mexico, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia showed gains in math among both fourth- and eighth-graders over the same period.
— Maryland's fourth- and eighth-graders showed improvements in reading.
— New York was the only state to score lower in math among fourth-graders in 2011, compared to 2009.
— Missouri was the only state where eighth-graders posted a lower score in math from two years earlier.
— Missouri and South Dakota had lower scores among fourth-graders in reading from 2009 to 2011.
Tom Loveless, an education expert and senior policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, said any gains from 2009 to 2011 were minuscule and wouldn't even be noticed "in the real world." He said what counts is long-term growth. "Students have had a lot harder time making the gains in reading than they have in math," Loveless said.
There was no clear reason why.
David Driscoll, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, noted that when the board set achievement levels around 1990, the percentage of students at or above proficient was far higher in reading than math — the opposite of today.
Some speculate it's simply because reading isn't as much of a pastime with students as it was years ago.
Fuller said another theory is that reading is much more dependent on the richness of English being used at home, while math has more of a level playing field that's almost like a foreign language to all students when they learn it.
Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the schools in the city of Washington who now leads the education advocacy group StudentsFirst, said teachers have told her that the concepts that need to be taught in math are easier to define.
'I've heard teachers say it's easier to do that in math, and easier to sort of define here are the specific skills that the kids need help on ... and go back and reteach those things," Rhee said.
The math assessment was given this year to 209,000 fourth-graders and 175,200 eighth-graders. The reading test was given to 213,100 fourth-graders and 168,200 eighth-graders.
National Assessment of Educational Progress: http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/
Kimberly Hefling can be followed at http://twitter.com/khefling