Press Release

WASHINGTON (November 1, 2011) — In both the fourth and eighth grades, America’s students are performing at their highest levels ever in reading and mathematics, according to data released today from the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress. For example:

  • Nationally, in both grades and both subjects, higher percentages of students overall are scoring Proficient and above than in 2003, the first year for which we have data for all 50 states. This improvement is also true for subgroups.
  • Low-income students did better in 2011 than they did in 2009, in both grades and both subjects.
  • In math, 49 states improved their average scores in both fourth and eighth grades since 2003. In reading, 34 states have higher fourth-grade results and 39 states boosted their average eighth-grade score over the same time period.

The news, however, is not all good. National scores in fourth-grade reading did not budge significantly overall or for racial/ethnic subgroups since 2009, the last time the assessment was administered. Indeed, among low-income students and students of color, fewer than one in four fourth-graders and one in five eighth-graders scored Proficient or above in either subject. And gaps in performance between groups — even those that are narrowing — are not closing fast enough.

“The results announced today reflect real improvements in teaching and learning in America’s public schools,” said Daria Hall, director of K-12 policy development at The Education Trust. “But the data make clear that we cannot afford to take our eyes off the prize or to retreat from efforts to improve outcomes for any group of kids, because this slow rate of progress in reading and math — the fundamental building blocks of academic learning — may also signal that we have gotten all we can out of incremental improvement strategies.”

As the education rhetoric in Washington escalates, some will invariably attempt to cast these data as a referendum on “federal accountability.” Those arguments, however, would be foolish. The No Child Left Behind Act shed much-needed light on student academic performance — particularly for low-income students and students of color — and asked every state to step up the pace on both school improvement and educational equity. But accountability cannot be confused with a comprehensive improvement strategy.

“We’re headed in the right direction, but we’re not moving fast enough for any group of students,” said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust. “That doesn’t mean, however, that we can afford to take our foot off the gas pedal, as the current Senate proposal for NCLB reauthorization would have us do. To truly accelerate learning, we need to shift into high gear. We must steer all kids toward higher expectations, identify and assign effective teachers to the ones who most need them, and provide all teachers with the strong supports they need. Accountability alone will not cut it.”

State-level results, like the national data, also present a mixed picture, with tremendous variation between the states. For black students in fourth-grade reading, for example, the difference between the highest performing states and the lowest performing states is about equal to the gap between white and black students nationally.

Some states are leading the way in 2011 performance, improvement since 2003, or both:


  • While their achievement gaps remain large, Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey consistently ranked among the top states in both performance and improvement, overall and by subgroup, in both subjects and grades.
  • In fourth-grade math, Hawaii, Kentucky and Rhode Island were among the top improvers by overall scale score as well as for black, Latino and low-income students.
  • Alabama made the greatest improvements in the nation in fourth-grade reading scores overall, for African-American students and for low-income students.
  • Texas increased the percent of students who scored Proficient and above in eighth-grade math overall by 15 percentage points. For African-Americans, the number grew by 13 percentage points, for Latino students by 17 percentage points and for low-income students by 16 percentage points.
  • In eighth-grade reading, Connecticut’s black students made strong gains since 2009, improving by 10 points.

But lots of work remains:

  • California, Michigan, Missouri and Oregon consistently rank among the bottom states in both performance and improvement, overall and by subgroup, in both subjects and grades.
  • In fourth-grade reading, five states — Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts and Minnesota — have gaps between black and white, Latino and white and low-income and more affluent students that all are greater than the national averages.
  • In fourth-grade math, scale scores for African-American students in Oregon and South Carolina, Latino students in Connecticut and American Indian/Alaska Native students in Alaska and Washington have all dropped since 2003.
  • Despite a one-point increase since 2009, Latino scores in Ohio are still 16 points lower in eighth-grade reading than they were in 2003.
  • Since 2003, math proficiency in New York among the state’s Latino eighth-graders has decreased.

“When you dig beneath overall averages, it is apparent that we can and should expect more, because some states are indeed doing far better than others,” Hall said. “The challenge now is to learn from the places making the most progress so that we can both accelerate and replicate those improvements. Our students are counting on being ready to tackle whatever challenges they will face after high school. That means all of us have to roll up our sleeves a little higher and get to work to ensure that they all get the kind of education they need and deserve.”