Some Good News in American Education

America's students are showing some improvement in reading and math.

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Students are making small but steady gains in reading and math skills, but achievement gaps have not closed.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress – also known as the Nation's Report Card – released the 2013 math and reading results for fourth and eighth graders last week. The test is administered every two years to a sample of students in each state and provides a snapshot of U.S. student performance on core subjects and a valid way of comparing students across states, since they all take the same test.

While overall performance remains poor, this year's report card does show improvement. Nationally, math scores were higher in 2013 than they have been since 1990 for both grades and for all student demographic groups. What's more, the percentage of students who scored "advanced" on the tests was higher in 2013 than in any year since 1990.

On reading, both fourth and eighth graders posted their highest scores since 1992, with the exception of 2011, when fourth graders scored even higher. Scores improved the most in both subjects and grades in the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Schools (schools on military bases) and in Tennessee, which posted the largest improvements of any state in the nation.

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I have been a long-time fan of the NAEP and find these results fascinating. The improvements correlate with the advent of standards-based reform, which began to take root in the 1990s with passage of the President Clinton-supported "Improving America's Schools Act" and continued under President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" and President Obama's "Race to the Top." Richard Whitmire's USA Today column also uses the improvements in D.C. and Tennessee to highlight the powerful role that standards, accountability, charter schools and reforms focused around teacher quality can play in improving test scores. Interestingly, these reforms were crystallized under the leadership of former D.C. school Chancellor Michelle Rhee and her ex-husband, Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.

Since student grades are not impacted by performance on the NAEP test, I suspect the scores would be even higher if there was something at stake. The "tiger mom" in me also wishes that the test was available to those who are curious to see how their own child performs relative to their peers locally and nationwide; but you cannot elect to have your child tested or purchase the test to administer on your own.

In the meantime, the results are encouraging and suggest that for all the bad news about American education, there are some good things happening.

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