Blog: The Educated Reporter

20 Years Later, U.S. Students Making Big Academic Gains

If rising student proficiency is the hallmark of an improving education system, the nation’s schools have something to brag about: A new government report shows fourth and eighth graders since 1990 have made major gains in how well they understand challenging concepts in mathematics while also making modest gains in reading.

Known as the nation’s report card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress is a biennial snapshot of how much students know. The exam is considered much tougher for students than state-level standardized tests. The 2013 results for math and reading show slight gains since 2011 but demonstrate larger jumps in achievement when compared with results from two decades ago.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the test results demonstrate “encouraging but modest signs of progress in both reading and math” during a press call with reporters yesterday.

The secretary drew a link between states that adopted the new Common Core State Standards and the test results of their students on the nation’s report card. Duncan said the eight states that had implemented the standards at the time the NAEP tests were conducted “showed improvement in at least one of the reading or math assessments from 2009 to 2013. And none of those eight states had a decline in scores,” he said. Those states are Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi and North Carolina.

Others were less willing to chalk up changes in state scores to any one policy initiative. “At NCES, we spend a lot of time focused on the what,” said Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center on Education Statistics, to reporters yesterday. “We’re not usually qualified to tell you why.” NCES is the research arm of the Department of Education that designs the NAEP tests.

“There are so many things that have happened in American education today that could be operating in so many different directions,” Buckley said.

He added: “It’s very difficult … for a single study like this to tease that out.”

Since 2011, tested students demonstrated overall growth in all but fourth-grade reading, according to today’s NAEP results.

Forty-two percent of fourth graders in 2013 scored high enough on the assessment in math to be considered proficient, a gain of two percentage points since 2011. In 1990, 13 percent of fourth graders were considered proficient. Older students gained less ground after two decades: In 1990, 15 percent of eighth graders were proficient, whereas in 2011 and 2013 that was true for 35 percent of students in eighth grade.

U.S. students have notched smaller gains in reading. The chart below captures the changes since 1992:

The National Center on Education Statistics (NCES) issued the NAEP tests to students between January and March of 2013. No student takes the whole exam; instead, NCES uses a type of test-taking approach called “matrix sampling” that issues a different portion of the test to many students. The method is considered to have strong statistical validity and the number of students taking the exams in each state are a representative sample of all the students in that state.

More than 700,000 fourth and eighth graders took part in the assessments. NAEP’s scoring system creates four categories of achievement: Below basic, Basic, Proficient and Advanced. A government board that sets policy for national tests, the National Assessment Governing Board, says its goal is for all students to achieve the level of proficient.

New Tools

The agency built a site that houses all the results for this year, departing from the older model of large documents users had to download. An informational video boasts the site offers “better access than ever to data.” New data visualization tools allow users to generate charts and maps that compare scores by state, gender, student backgrounds or a combination of all three.

For example, users can generate a map probing how many states closed the achievement gap between black and white students since 1992. According to NAEP, 16 states have statistically tapered that gap among public school fourth graders in math:

The same is true for just four states when examining the achievement gap between whites and Hispanics the past two decades:

While many states demonstrated some improvements in the test scores of minorities, the numbers posted weren’t substantial enough to warrant NCES’s stamp of statistically significant approval.

The new site also allows users to create detailed charts. Here we see the gains posted by various demographic groups since 1990 and 2011 in eighth grade math:

And for eighth graders in reading since 1992: 


Another new feature showcases the population changes among demographic groups over time, which helps explain why overall NAEP results seem meager even as different subgroups made notable strides. The United States has experienced a major demographic shift since early 1990s, a time researchers say was the start of the massive wave of Spanish-speaking immigrants entering the United States. Whites declined as a share of the student population, from nearly three-quarters to about half. Meanwhile, blacks and Hispanics–a group that grew nearly four times in size since 1990–posted scores on NAEP that showed big gains over time but were still lower than white student scores. The combination of the two trends creates the phenomenon in which the national NAEP score don’t reflect the growth in achievement among minorities.

The influx of non-native English speakers, especially young ones, in part helps explain why average scores in reading have risen at a slower rate than in math. Cornelia Orr, the executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, told reporters that “the difference between math and reading is that … reading is very dependent on vocabulary, which is very much an early learning intervention. But mathematics learning is almost all school-based.”

That combined with what she described as a “school reform effort” in the 1990s that placed a greater emphasis on mathematics at the elementary school level helped contribute to the higher gains in math on NAEP than in reading.

During a call with reporters, Duncan took the early education theme and ran with it: “The only way we are ever going to significantly, radically close the achievement gap is to stop playing catch up … and dramatically increase access to high quality early childhood education.”


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