Younger Students Outshine High Schoolers in Reading, Math

Federal test scores for 9-year-olds are the highest since early 1970s.

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The nation's younger students are doing better in reading and math, with 9-year-olds posting the highest average scores on federal tests since the early 1970s, according to a long-term trend report released this week. Scores for 17-year-olds, on the other hand, remain mostly flat, suggesting that piecemeal attempts at high school reform have fallen short and that a more comprehensive solution might be necessary.

The results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation's report card, come as federal lawmakers prepare for hearings on the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act later this year. The federal NCLB testing law, which has been in effect since 2002, has made schools more accountable for how all students—particularly low-income and minority students—perform, especially in the early grades.

But that law has come under criticism for allegedly causing some states to dumb down their standards and tests. The federal NAEP test is considered a more reliable measure of how students perform across the country.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has made no secret of his desire to overhaul NCLB, said in a statement that the latest test results underscore the need for serious reform in education. Duncan has promised more federal dollars to states that adopt more rigorous standards and improve teacher quality.

"We're pleased to see some recent progress among all age groups in reading and among younger age groups in math," he said. "We're also pleased to see achievement gaps shrinking in reading, but we still have a lot more work to do."

Indeed, younger students are making steady academic progress, according to the NAEP Long-Term Trend Reading and Mathematics Assessments report. Nine-year-olds' 2008 average scores were the highest in the history of the NAEP test. They scored 220 in reading and 243 in math on a 500-point scale. By comparison, their scores were 208 in reading in 1971 and 219 in math in 1973.

But whether the rate of improvement has slowed or accelerated because of the No Child Left Behind law remains a subject of intense debate. The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which is critical of No Child Left Behind testing, issued a statement in response to the NAEP results saying that the achievement gaps between white and minority students remain mostly unchanged.

In announcing the latest test results, David Driscoll, former commissioner of education in Massachusetts, lamented the lackluster performance of students who are on the verge of graduating high school. But he expressed optimism about the future.

"One would hope that when those 9- and 13-year-olds become 17-year-olds, they bring their scores with them," he said.