Elementary achieversand the high school challenge
The latest national report card on student performance in math and reading suggests that elementary-school reforms now have kids gaining groundand that, as a group, 17-year-olds are standing still [The Nation's Report Card].
Three decades of testing data from the government's long-term National Assessment of Educational Progress show that 9-year-olds scored higher in reading and math in 2004 than at any time since the early 1970s, 13-year-olds had their best-ever showing in math, and older teens' results have been more or less flat.
"My speculation is that this is reward for effort. We're talking about sizable investments in this country in the elementary grades," said Darvin Winick, head of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the test and reported the results this morning. The trend lines provide supporting evidence, he said, that the recent push to reform high school is "properly pointed."
More than half of the youngest children's gains in reading have occurred since 1999proof, maintained Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, that the federal No Child Left Behind Act is working. But the law is only a couple of years older than the current results. Experts credit more broadly the standards and accountability movement that took off in the states in the 1990s, a focus on the early grades, and a more rigorous and scientific approach to teaching reading. Stagnant reading scores for older students signal that reforms in middle school and high school should include "well-planned programs in adolescent literacy," says Francie Alexander, also a member of the governing board and chief academic officer of Scholastic, publisher of a reading intervention program now used in many secondary schools.
Other key findings:
- In all age groups, achievement gaps between white and minority students are slowly closing. The difference between white and black 9-year-olds' reading scores dropped from 44 points to 26 points (on a 500-point scale) between 1971 and 2004, for example, even as white children's scores were improving. But among older students, progress on that front has generally stalled in the past six years.
- Nine-year-olds and 13-year-olds are reading moreat least for school. Since 1984, the first time they were asked about their reading habits, the proportion of kids in both groups reading at least 11 pages a day in school and for homework rose from 40 percent to 53 percent. The proportion of students in those age groups who read regularly for pleasure hardly changed. Older students are reading about the same amount for school, and the proportion who almost never read for pleasure has doubled.
- Many more 17-year-olds are taking higher-level math. The percentage who said they had studied calculus nearly tripled between 1978 and 2004, and the proportion with Algebra 2 rose from 37 percent to 53 percent. The whole group's performance has been flat for three decades, but kids with toughest courses under their belts in 2004 achieved the highest scores.