On a Nationwide Test, Improving Math Scores Outpace Reading Gains

Massachusetts scores lead the nation, while Oklahoma drops in both categories.

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"The Ben Franklin Bridge was 75 years old in 2001. In what year was the bridge 50 years old?" If your fourth-grader answered 1976, he or she deserves a congratulatory pat on the back. Only 36 percent of the nation's fourth-graders chose B as the correct response on a test given across the country, according to what has been called the nation's report card—the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, the results of which were released yesterday.

Despite the results for that particular question, the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress tests overall show a dramatic rise in math scores among fourth- and eighth-graders since 1990, when only 13 percent of fourth-graders and 15percent of eighth-graders were proficient in math levels. Since then, fourth-grade math scores have jumped an average of 27 percentage points while eighth-grade math scores have increased an average of 18 points.

But fourth- and eighth-grade reading gains were modest at best. Since 1992, the first year a comparable test was offered, the average reading scores for elementary students are up just 4 percentage points to 221 (on a scale of 500) and eighth-grade scores are up 3 percentage points to 263.

Officials who administered the test lauded the overall progress but could not say definitively what accounts for students' success in math and lackluster performance in reading. The results immediately drew questions about whether the federal accountability measures introduced under No Child Left Behind are responsible for the gains. The five-year-old law, which aims to have all students read and practice math at grade level by 2014, is up for renewal this year.

Darvin Winick, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, acknowledged that the law has made state education practices more transparent, but stopped short of crediting it for the academic improvements. "I would say that the focus on data that No Child Left Behind encourages has a very positive impact," he told reporters at a news conference.

The Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom, a Washington think tank that has been critical of NCLB measures, issued a statement that cautioned against giving the law undue credit. Andrew Coulson, the center's director, noted that scores in the early grades have been gradually improving since the early 1990s and criticized the law for doing little to help high school students reach academic proficiency.

The nation's report card is considered one of the most reliable measures of academic performance across state lines because students take the same test. The math and reading tests were given to a sample of about 700,000 students attending public and private schools from January to March 2007.

The report card also shows how states stack up against each other in reading and math scores. This year, Massachusetts led the nation with 58 percent of fourth-graders scoring proficient or advanced in math, while Mississippi fared among the worst, with 79 percent of fourth-graders scoring basic or below in math. Massachusetts also led in fourth-grade reading scores, with Mississippi and the District of Columbia at the bottom of that category. Massachusetts, however, tested considerably fewer minority and low-income children than Mississippi. Oklahoma was the only state where both math and reading scores have dropped since 2005.

The math results seem to challenge the view that American students are less competitive than youngsters in other developed countries. The number of fourth-graders lacking basic math skills—those who, for example, could not use subtraction and addition to determine the age of a bridge at a given year—shrank to 18 percent from 50 percent in 1990.

The results also call into doubt the notion that gifted students are being underserved at a time when the political focus centers on helping the lowest achievers in math. In the fourth and eighth grades, students at every performance level—from the most advanced to those with basic skills—showed improvement in math.