Racial Achievement Gaps Remain Largely Unchanged, Despite Higher Test Scores

Students overall are scoring higher in reading and math, but achievement gaps remain unchanged.

Students are making small but steady gains in reading and math skills, but achievement gaps have not closed.
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Despite making modest gains in reading and math assessments in the last several years, racial achievement gaps among elementary and middle schoolers have remained essentially unchanged for the last two decades.

[READ: High School Students Have Made No Progress in 40 Years, Report Says]

In its latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, the National Assessment Governing Board found that overall, fourth and eighth graders have improved slightly in their reading and math skills not just in the last two years, but also since the early 1990s. Since 2011, fourth graders scored one point higher in both math and reading, while eighth graders scored one point higher in math and three points higher in reading. Even when broken down by racial and ethnic groups, all students have improved since the 1990s and although any gains since 2011 have been small, no groups' scores have fallen.

"Our national progress makes me optimistic that local leaders and educators are showing the way to raising standards and driving innovation in the next few years," said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a call with reporters Wednesday. "It is encouraging to see progress in tough economic times, when so many states and local communities have struggled with significant cuts to their education budgets."

The board tested 377,000 fourth graders and 342,000 eighth graders across the country, and scored them on a 500-point scale, determining whether their performance was "advanced," "proficient," or "basic." The percentage of fourth and eighth graders who scored at or above proficient was higher than the national average in 19 states for math, and in 15 states for reading.

William Waidelich, executive director of the Association for Middle Level Education, said in a statement that although the scores indicate educators are beginning to better adapt curricula to the individual needs of students, there is still more progress that needs to be made.

"All stakeholders must recognize that middle-level education serves a distinct developmental period, one in which youth mature and undergo major changes in every aspect of their being," Waidelich said. "Education drives America's ability to lead in creativity and innovation, skills needed in a rapidly changing world. Improving education requires a practical set of iterative steps toward an ultimate goal

Despite some encouraging results, officials say there are still troubling findings from the assessment, also known as the Nation's Report Card.

In 1990, for example, 87 percent of fourth graders scored at or below basic in mathematics. Although that number has decreased, more than half of fourth graders in 2013 still scored at or below basic. And the same is true for both subjects in both grades: 64 percent of eighth graders scored at or below basic in math, while 65 percent of fourth graders and 64 percent of eighth graders scored at or below basic in reading in 2013.

Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy, says improvements are most often made at the bottom end of the distribution because education accountability policies, such as those under No Child Left Behind, reward school districts when they help lower performing students improve. 

"There's almost no policy reward for getting a proficient student to advanced," Loveless says. "But there are big payoffs ... for boosting below basic kids up, especially basic kids to proficient."

[MORE: U.S. Drops in High School, College Grad Rates, Report Finds]

Additionally, Loveless notes that test score improvements tend to taper off as students get older, but it's unclear exactly why that is the case. When looking at long term trends from the NAEP report, fourth graders have consistently made larger gains than eighth graders, and students have made larger gains in math than in reading. Zeroing in on why those disparities exist should be a focus for researchers in the future, Loveless says.

"(The reason) could be something very profound," Loveless says. "It could be something cultural about the way we school kids in the United States, or maybe in terms of our expectations for teenagers that they're just not as academic as they should be. But all of those are guesses. We don't really know."

Updated 11/07/13: This story has been updated to reflect comments from Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution.