Press Release

WASHINGTON (April 28, 2009) – According to today’s release of long-term trend data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), we’ve seen marked improvements in reading and math achievement among younger students, and achievement gaps between white students and students of color have narrowed over the past four decades.

However, 35 years of relative stagnation in reading and math achievement among high school students overall should be cause for great alarm. In the face of rapid changes in the workplace and the world, our schools are not preparing our students for the challenges and demands of today, let alone tomorrow.

When NAEP’s long-term trend assessment was first given in the early 1970’s, American homes and businesses were equipped with touch-tone telephones, mimeograph machines, and console TV sets with 12-channel tuners. Skylab was launched, the cost of a first-class postage stamp was eight cents, and technologies like the barcode and floppy disk drive were still in development.

At that time, less than a quarter of our young people earned bachelor’s degrees and only about 16 percent of U.S. jobs required an undergraduate education. In fact, the majority of workers earning a middle-class wage didn’t require any postsecondary training.

On those first NAEP long-term trend assessments, African-American and Latino 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds trailed far behind their white peers in both reading and math.

  • In reading, African-American 9-year-olds scored 44 points lower than their white peers. At age 13, African-American students lagged 39 points behind white students. And among 17-year-olds, the white-African-American gap was 53 points.
  • In math, Latino 9-year-olds scored 23 points lower than their white peers. At age 13, the white-Latino gap was 35 points. And at age 17, Latino students lagged 33 points behind white students.

Today, wireless mobile devices, laptop computers, and portable media players are key tools for both businesses and families. Pluto is no longer a planet and while a first-class postage stamp costs 42 cents, we’re now more likely to communicate via e-mails and text messages.

The rate of bachelor’s degree completion in this country has increased to about 30 percent. Still, just 20 percent of African Americans and 12 percent of Latinos earn that four-year degree, putting them at a crippling disadvantage as they enter the U.S. job market: Twice as many jobs now require an undergraduate education as they did in the early 1970’s. In the next decade, nearly 8 in 10 jobs will demand some form of postsecondary education.

But while the world has changed dramatically over the past four decades, our overall achievement and gaps between student groups have not changed nearly enough.

In 2008, reading and math scores for all groups were higher than at the beginning of the trend. And yet, African-American and Latino 9-, 13-, and 17-year-old students still trail too far behind their white peers. And those gaps have not narrowed at all since the last time the tests were administered in 2004.

Reform efforts focused at the elementary level are reaping improvements that must be celebrated, but those gains fall off sharply as students progress through our K-12 school system.

Among 9-year-olds:

  • Compared to 1973, math gains for African-American students (34 points) and Latino students (32 points) have outpaced gains for white students (25 points). However, math scores for African-American and Latino students have not significantly improved since 2004.
  • Similarly, reading gains for African-American students (34 points) and Latino students (24 points) have outpaced gains for white students (14 points) since the beginning of the trend. Since 2004, scores for all groups of students have increased significantly.

While 13-year-olds have made modest improvements in reading and math, the gaps have remained relatively consistent for the past two decades.

In reading:

  • The gap between African-American and white 13-year-olds was 21 points in 1990 and 21 points in 2008.
  • The gap between Latino and white 13-year-olds was 24 points in 1990 and 26 points in 2008.

In math:

  • The gap between African-American and white 13-year-olds was 27 points in 1990 and 28 points in 2008.
  • The Latino-white gap was 22 points in 1990 and 23 points in 2008.

Disappointingly, there has been no improvement among 17-year-olds overall in either reading or math since the beginning of the trends, despite some narrowing of the gaps between white students and students of color in both subjects. However, by the time young people need to be ready to enter college or the workplace and become active citizens, the skills of African-American and Latino 17-year-olds still lag about four years behind those of their white peers.

As a nation, we know what it takes to educate our children well. Generation after generation, U.S. schools produced the business leaders and innovators who have revolutionized and reshaped our world. High standards, rigorous curriculum, and strong teaching set millions of young Americans on the path to rich, productive lives that have added to our national knowledge and prosperity.

But as a nation, we still fail to ensure that all of our young people get the kind of education that we know will increase their chances of success. Our failure to provide low-income students and students of color with the resources necessary to compete in today’s marketplace not only ignores the principles on which our nation was founded, but diminishes the prospects for America’s next generation. The challenges of the 21st century are already far too great to count on just the fortunate few when we still need to ensure that all students master at least 20th-century skills.

We know we can do better for all students, and we know we must do better. America’s future literally depends on it.