American students – black, white, Hispanic, rich, poor, male, and female – are improving in math and reading, especially those at the elementary level, where most of education reform has focused.
Those are the modest but positive results from Tuesday's release of the most influential test in US education, the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
Fourth-graders are reading at higher levels than in all previous assessments, and most racial/ethnic groups are showing improvement. The achievement gap between black and white students is still large, at 27 points, but has never been lower.
Gains are even more striking in mathematics, where the average score for fourth-graders has increased 27 points over the past 17 years, with improvement across all performance levels. (A 10-point gain is roughly equivalent to gaining a grade level.)
The timing of the biennial release of fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading scores – as Congress takes up renewal of a controversial education law – could not be more politically charged.
"Student achievement is on the rise," said Secretary Margaret Spellings, after the release of the 2007 NAEP scores. "No Child Left Behind is working. It's doable, reasonable, and necessary. Any efforts to weaken accountability would fly in the face of rising achievement."
Officials releasing the report were more guarded in saying how much of the national gains could be attributed to the new federal law.
"We know what happens but not why," says Darvin Winick, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the test. "It's clear that the focus on reform in this country, particularly at the elementary level, has had a very positive effect."
That includes what the states are doing, as well as the federal government, and all those involved in a 25-year movement to improve schools through greater accountability.
But what has changed is the degree of transparency of data on student achievement – a key factor in driving education reform, he adds.
"The data transparency that we have in this country now on school performance is dramatically different than it was before these reforms began. It is not very common to see disaggregated, group-by-group data on the front pages of almost every newspaper in the country," he adds.
At a time when public opinion is shifting against the 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, lawmakers favoring an ongoing strong federal role in local education face tough obstacles. The law uses federal funding to mandate annual testing. Schools that cannot demonstrate "adequate yearly progress" face penalties.
Many Democrats worry that testing has gone too far and is putting too much pressure on teachers, who are among the most reliable party activists.
Many conservative Republicans say Washington doesn't belong in local schools and the law should be radically changed or phased out.
For the first time, most Americans now have an unfavorable view of the law, according to the 2007 PDK/Gallup Poll released this month. Nearly half of those surveyed say they would blame the law if large numbers of schools fail to meet the requirements, rather than blame the school.
"The basic political dynamic is this: Good news is not going to change the minds of those who oppose the law. This is not an empirical fight; it's an ideological fight. But bad news would have put some wind in the sails of the critics," says Andrew Rotherham, a former education adviser to President Clinton and codirector of Education Sector, an education policy think tank.
A closely watched result in the NAEP test is the number of students still performing below basic levels. The biggest gains this year are among fourth graders, but more than 70 percent of eighth-graders now test at or above basic levels. Eighth-grade reading skills, however, have been flat.
"The good news is that there's continued increases in math and reading scores in general, except for eighth-grade reading," says Jack Jennings, president and CEO of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, which has conducted the most systematic and long-range studies of NCLB. "The data show that we can get substantial increases in elementary school achievement, but these increases are being lost in middle school and certainly high school."
With this week's NAEP scores, "we can claim partial victory, but we need to get on to the harder problems," Mr. Jennings says.
"This report will be used by the Bush administration to say the law ought to be renewed as it is, but the critics will find some grounds to say the law must be substantially changed, and both sides may be right," he adds.
Moves to reform the 2002 NCLB are furthest along in the House, where the Education and Labor Committee is reworking draft legislation that shifts emphasis from standardized testing by allowing schools to use other measures to demonstrate adequate yearly progress.
"For members of Congress who are under a lot of pressure to scrap the law or dramatically overhaul it, the NAEP results will give them some cover to make changes in the law, but to keep it in a recognizable form," says Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.