Press Release

WASHINGTON (June 27, 2013) — The results from the 2012 long-term trend National Assessment of Educational Progress show that over the last four decades, our nation has made very real progress for all groups of students.

Since the 1970s, reading and math performance for 9 and 13-year-olds has increased significantly. At all ages, gains have been largest among students of color. And they are meaningful: In math, for example, African American and Latino 9-year-olds are performing about where their 13-year-old counterparts were in the early ’70s.

This faster progress has led to meaningful gap-narrowing. The reading gap between African American and white 9-year-olds has nearly been cut in half. In math, the gap between Latino and white 13-year-olds has narrowed by 40 percent. And among 17-year-olds, the black-white and Latino-white gaps in reading have narrowed by about half.

Moreover, there’s been progress across the achievement spectrum, from those at the low end of the performance distribution to those at the high end. In math, for example, the lowest performing 13-year-olds in 2012 scored 27 points higher than did the lowest performing 13-year- olds in 1978. And the highest performers in 2012 scored 16 points above the highest performers at the beginning of the trend.

“These results put to rest any notion that our schools are getting worse; in fact, they are getting better for every group of children. If we have a crisis in American education, it is that we aren’t yet moving fast enough to educate the ‘minorities’ who will soon make up a ‘new majority’ of our children nearly as well as we educate the old majority,” said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust. “At best, students of color are just now performing at the level of white students a generation ago.”

The NAEP Long-Term Trend Assessment offers an important opportunity to reflect on efforts to raise achievement and close gaps over time. It’s clear, for example, that some of the biggest gains took place in past decades, a time when policymakers were beginning to confront problems inside of the educational system — including segregation and deep funding inequities — and problems outside of it.

Results since the 1990s — those that coincide with efforts to raise achievement and close gaps through standards, accountability, and public reporting — show gains as well, but they also suggest a worrisome slowdown in the most recent years. Take African American 9-year-olds, for example. In the late ’90s, math scores were actually declining at a rate of 0.2 point a year. But between 1999 and 2004, just as accountability and public reporting efforts took hold nationwide, scores increased at a rate of 2.6 points per year. Since then, however, the rate of improvement has slowed. Between 2008 and 2012, math scores for black 9-year-olds increased at a rate of just 0.5 point annually.

This pattern of steep gains between 1999 and 2004, followed by slower rates of improvement is consistent across all groups of 9-year-olds. But the trend is not uniform across all subjects and ages. Over the last four years, for example, Latino 13-year-olds made bigger annual gains in reading than at any time since the mid-1990s. Latino 17-year-olds also saw accelerated improvement between 2008 and 2012.

What lessons should we take from all this?

  • First, improvement and gap-closing is not just a theoretical possibility, it is happening:  Long-standing gaps between groups are getting ever smaller, though not nearly fast enough.
  • Second, if we are going to speed up the rate of improvement, we need a full-court press to improve opportunity and outcomes for students of color — one that confronts rising economic inequality and isolation outside of schools, as well as continued unequal opportunities within schools.
  • Third, when it comes to policies governing our schools, standards and accountability spark improvement, but alone are insufficient to generate the kind of sustained gains that we need.

The last lesson is especially important as Congress debates the future of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. “Accountability has made a difference, and we must hold the line on high expectations for all groups of students,” said Haycock. “But we can’t stop there. Moving forward, we need meaningful accountability coupled with powerful standards; rich curriculum; effective, well-supported teachers and leaders; and extra supports for out-of-school challenges.”