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Test Scores Show Achievement Gap Narrows as High School Students Stagnate

Despite the popular hand-wringing over America’s schools, younger students are actually performing at significantly higher levels in reading and math than they were in the 1970s, according to a new government report.

The report also shows a dramatic gradual reduction of the so-called “achievement gap,” the gap between scores of ethnic minorities.

But the findings aren’t all positive. Since 2008, only 13-year-olds posted score increases. The overall results illustrate two fundamental problems: It’s easier to boost scores in math than it is in reading, and the test scores of older students have not increased.

The report, released by the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. Education Department’s research arm, includes results on a test known that is the long-term trends version of the National Assessment for Educational Progress. NAEP is known as a gold standard of assessment, because it samples students from across the country in a secure test that does not impact teacher evaluations or student promotions. The long-term exams, called the “Trends in Academic Progress,” differ from the other better-known NAEP tests because they have tested students at ages 9, 13, and 17 on the same material since the 1970s.

The report relies on NAEP data from the 2011-2012 school year, and tested 26,000 students in public and private schools. Students are measured on a 350-point scale, according to the report.

On average, 9-year-olds’ scores increased from 208 to 221, or 13 points, on the reading exam between 1971 and 2011-2012. With a score of 221, students are expected to “make an inference based on explicit information in a biographical sketch,” but likely can’t do things like find similarities between two characters or identify a paragraph’s main topic, the report says. Thirteen-year-olds’ scores increased by eight points, from 255 to 263, a level which means they cannot “support an opinion about a story using details.” Seventeen-year-olds only grew 2 points over that period, scoring a 287, a level at which they can “use understanding of a poem to recognize” the poem’s speaker but not explain key parts of the poem’s topic.

In math, 9-year-olds increased their scores from 219 to 244 — or 25 points — between 1973 and 2011-2012. Thirteen-year-olds showed an increase from 266 to 285, or 19 points. Seventeen-year-olds grew 2 points over that time, and actually scored 2 points below their average of 308 in 1999.

“It shows that high schools aren’t doing a great job,” said Mark Schneider, the former NCES commissioner who now works as a vice president at the American Institutes for Research. “Schools are lying about the quality of the education they’re giving: They call pre-algebra algebra, they call algebra calculus, they’re giving higher grades in teaching watered-down curricula — because we’ve told them to get better.”

The scores also might mask further improvements. Since the exam is given to certain age groups and not specific grades, the population taking the test has changed. For example, the study found that 13-year-olds now are much more likely to be in seventh grade than they were in the 1970s, when most students of that age were in eighth grade. “If you think about that, these are kids that have had one year less schooling,” Schneider said. “There’s a heavy lift going on.”

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