Press Release

WASHINGTON (October 14, 2009) – Most student groups and the nation as a whole showed modest gains at the eighth-grade level on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in mathematics. Some states improved significantly in both fourth and eighth grades. Yet we remain concerned that:

  • achievement gaps did not narrow in either grade,
  • performance among America’s fourth graders—where we have seen the strongest and most consistent improvement over the past two decades—flattened out, and
  • overall scores at the fourth-grade level actually declined significantly in four states; this is the first such decline since 2003, when all 50 states began participating in NAEP.

Given these results, it is more critical than ever for educators to examine their practice and curricula, disregard what isn’t working, and double down on the things that are raising student achievement. This matters most in schools and classrooms serving the students who are farthest behind: low-income students and students of color.

“We should applaud the continued improvements made in eighth grade, but we must be alert to what the apparent stalled progress in fourth grade may signal,” said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust.  “It’s clear from the data at both grade levels that we still have a long way to go to effectively prepare all of our elementary and middle school students for the world that awaits them in high school and beyond.”

Strong math skills equip students with the tools they need to succeed in college, in the workplace, and in life. Indeed, high school mathematics achievement is the best predictor of college success, even more influential than family background. But even for young people who don’t pursue a bachelor’s degree, possessing strong math skills is becoming more critical each day. In fact, math-intensive occupations— including many that do not require a college diploma—are growing much faster than the overall job market.

That’s why the 2009 NAEP math data are worrisome.

After two decades of steady progress, fourth-grade math achievement is stagnating nationwide. Just 39 percent of U.S. students scored at the Proficient level. Among low-income students, the proficiency rate is 22 percent, and for Latino (21 percent) and African-American (15 percent) students, the results are even more troubling.

But despite that dismal picture, some states are doing better than others at raising achievement and helping struggling students improve:

  • Among low-income fourth graders, Florida’s proficiency rate (29 percent) is nearly twice Arizona’s (15 percent).
  • The percentage of Minnesota’s African-American fourth-grade students scoring at or above Proficient jumped from 16 percent in 2007 to 25 percent in 2009.
  • Since 2007, Maryland reduced its rates of below-Basic achievement for African-American, Latino, and low-income fourth graders by at least seven percentage points each. In fact, since 2003, Maryland has steadily decreased the percentage of each of these groups that score below Basic.

National averages increased modestly for African-American, Latino, white, and low-income eighth graders, but the gaps between groups did not narrow. State-level results also are mixed, but some states made important strides:

  • Fourteen states improved their overall scores from 2007 to 2009. Three of them—Connecticut, Missouri, and Rhode Island—also narrowed the gaps between African-American and white students, between Latino and white students, and between poor and non-poor students.
  • Since 2007, Michigan reduced the percentage of Latino eighth graders scoring below Basic achievement by 18 percentage points. In West Virginia, the rate of below-Basic performance among African-American students dropped by 22 percentage points over the same time frame.
  • During the six years that all 50 states have participated in the NAEP math assessment, Florida has been among our nation’s gap-closing leaders in eighth-grade math for all student groups. Since 2003, the state narrowed the gap between white and African-American students by 12 percentage points, between white and Latino students by seven percentage points, and between low-income and more affluent students by eight percentage points.

“We should celebrate these improvements but recognize that they are simply not coming fast enough,” said Haycock. “At a time when the stakes for our kids and for our country have never been higher, our students are not just performing below national expectations; they’re performing below international expectations, too. We must ensure that all students are provided with a rigorous curriculum and strong, focused instruction to help them achieve at the higher levels necessary to compete in the global marketplace.”

Unfortunately, we know from research that the curricula and instruction in most of our nation’s public schools—particularly in those serving mostly low-income students and students of color—fall far short of those in countries that outperform us on international mathematics assessments. Many state math standards remain woefully low and far too broad. Few aim all students toward education beyond high school. Low-income and minority students are still more likely than others to be enrolled in lower level high school math courses and to be taught math by out-of-field teachers.

That’s why the state-level movement toward voluntary Common Core Standards has so much promise.  Consistent, rigorous math expectations that put all students—regardless of Zip code—on a path to college readiness can help lay a foundation to support meaningful improvement in math achievement at all grade levels.

Clearer, higher standards alone—whether consistent across states or not—never will increase student learning. But they provide a roadmap for teachers, allowing them to focus on the knowledge and skills that prepare students for high school and beyond. Combined with a strong teaching force and the support and tools those teachers need, they can provide the octane needed to accelerate success for all students.