U.S. students improve in math and reading, report finds

Minorities and the poor make the most progress, narrowing the performance gap. Are federal reforms working?

America's schoolchildren are improving in reading and math – and minorities and those at the bottom of the economic ladder are closing the so-called achievement gap, which is a major goal of US education reform.

Those are the conclusions of a new national analysis released Tuesday, which compared more comprehensively than ever before data from state tests with the federal benchmark known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

"Schools are taking seriously raising achievement and narrowing the achievement gap," says Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy (CEP), a public-education research and advocacy group in Washington that published the study. "We can ask ... whether there's a better way to do it, but we shouldn't disregard the fact that this is good news."

Less clear is what's behind the improvement. The report covers the period from 2002 – when the No Child Left Behind Act took effect – to 2007. NCLB has pushed states and schools to improve student scores, especially for minorities and the poor, by holding schools accountable for test results. Thus, NCLB – President Bush's signature domestic program – may be a factor in the improvement.

But reform efforts are under way at all levels, education experts say. Districts are doing more to recruit and coach teachers. Some states were raising accountability standards long before NCLB.

According to the new report, state test scores improved most frequently on elementary and middle school math, followed by reading at those levels. But as previous reports have shown, high-schoolers made less progress: Out of 27 states with enough data to track high school scores for at least three years, reading declined in five; math declined in eight of 26 states.

Significantly more states have reduced achievement gaps than have seen them widen, particularly for African-American and low-income students, the CEP reports. The gaps narrowed in 327 instances of comparing proficiency levels for various groups, subjects, and grade levels; in 76 instances, they widened; in 20 they stayed the same.

Even in states making strides, there can still be a long way to go. In Mississippi, for instance, the gap between whites and blacks who are proficient in high school reading narrowed by eight percentage points between 2003 and 2007. But a 24-point gap remains, with 43 percent of whites and 19 percent of blacks meeting the bar. For elementary reading, the gap was halved, to nine percentage points.

Some temper their optimism. "There's some gap-closing going on for sure, but whether it's sustainable is another question," given the slumping economy's effect on schools, says Pete Goldschmidt, an education researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles.

It's possible, as some testing critics suggest, that schools are spending so much time on test prep that scores go up but the knowledge is fleeting; or states may have made slight changes to make tests easier, Mr. Jennings says. But he and others who advocate closing the gaps encourage people to celebrate what they consider a reasonable conclusion – that students are actually learning more. The report is available online at www.cep-dc.org.

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