It won't do to be churlish about today's NAEP long-term trend results. But neither should we be gaga. Here are Gadfly's first reflections, with more to come in later editions.
- American kids aren't doing very well but they're doing better than before, at least at ages 9 and 13, at least in math (and some of them in reading). Most of the gains are with younger students and with minority students, and mostly at the low end. (Even at age 9, there was no statistically significant gain in reading at the 90th percentile.)
- There's good news in places. Nine-year-olds are posting the best scores ever. Reading and math scores for nine-year-old African Americans and math scores for black thirteen-year-olds are at an all-time high, while the reading achievement gap for nine-year-olds is narrower. These are heartening data.
- Reading remains a problem, though, especially at the middle- and high-school levels, where performance flattens and even drops off. Most likely, accountability and higher standards are having an effect at the lower grades, but that momentum is not being sustained. (We have a few ideas as to why; watch for upcoming Fordham report on the problems of middle schools.)
- Seventeen year old achievement remains a big problem, with modest declines posted in both reading and math. Though it's never clear that they take NAEP tests seriously, it's hard to think they were less serious in 2004 than previously. The likely story is that efforts to beef up the American high school have thus far borne no fruit.
- The percentage of kids whose parents had only (or less than) a high school diploma plummeted from 45 percent to 33 percent from 1971 to 2004, a drop of 27 percent. (See appendix B3 for the details.) Yet we didn't see tremendous gains in achievement over that time, despite parents presumably becoming more, not less, educated and more interested in education for their children. This may raise some questions about whether a better-educated (or at least more highly degreed) society naturally begets better-educated kids.
- What accounts for the good news among the younger kids? Success has a thousand fathers and many will try to claim credit. We're inclined to thank the general toning up of standards since 1983 (A Nation at Risk), 1989 (the Charlottesville "summit"), 1994 (Goals 2000) and 2001 (NCLB), all of which played out differently in various states but all of which catalyzed overdue changes in many places.
Big problems remain, however: unacceptably wide achievement gaps, low achievement across the board, disheartening numbers of kids who just aren't up to snuff. Yes, things are better than they were. But this is no time for anybody to declare victory or get complacent. So savor the moment. And keep on fighting. You can read the results for yourself here.
"9-year-olds said better in math, reading," by Darlene Superville, Associated Press, July 14, 2005