While today's elementary and middle school students are scoring higher in reading and mathematics than 40 years ago, and scores show that race and gender achievement gaps may be narrowing, there is a "disturbing" lack of improvement among the nation's high school students, according to a report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
The NAEP's long-term trend assessment measures the basic reading and mathematics skills of 9-, 13- and 17-year-olds in American public and private schools every four years to show how students' performance has changed over time. In 2012, black and Hispanic students of all ages scored significantly higher in both mathematics and reading than students did in the early 1970s, when the assessments were first given. Gender gaps have also narrowed since the 1970s, with female students of all ages scoring better in math, and male students, who typically score lower in reading, narrowing the gap at age 9.
But since 2008, only one achievement gap – the White-Hispanic reading gap for 13-year-olds – has narrowed, according to the report.
"If we have a crisis in American education, it is this: That we aren't yet moving fast enough to educate the 'minorities' who will soon comprise a 'new majority' of our children nearly as well as we educate the old majority," said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, an organization that promotes closing achievement gaps.
"At best, students of color are just now performing at the level of white students a generation ago," she added in a released statement.
At first glance, it appears that all groups have shown some gains since the early 1970s. But the one group that has remained stagnant is 17-year-old students. Taken as a whole, that group has not made an improvement in either subject over the last 40 years.
Brent Houston, who serves on the National Assessment Governing Board that conducted the study, said in a released statement that the data collected for the report also include parents' level of education, which shows an increasing number of whom have graduated from college. This emphasis on education, he said, should translate into better performance for their children. But still, the average scores of 17-year-olds have stayed flat.
"If parents are achieving more, you'd think that older students in particular would be achieving at higher levels," he said in the statement.
But the report also revealed that children who more frequently read for fun are scoring higher in reading than those students who do so less frequently. In 2012, 53 percent of the 9-year-olds tested said they read for fun almost every day, and 23 percent said they do so once or twice a week. Those two groups scored more than 10 points higher than 9-year-olds who said they read for fun only a few times a year.
Overall, there are "considerable bright spots" in the report, said NAEP Governing Board Chair David Driscoll, in a released statement.
"Assessing students at particular ages over the decades provides a unique perspective on learning and achievement and a way to take a step back to see overall achievement trends and just how far we've come," he added.