- The Washington Times - Monday, August 6, 2001

School reform groups say the nation's latest report card for mathematics shows that the Bush administration is on the right track with its plan requiring states to push for greater academic achievement and accountability.
The report issued Thursday by the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) shows that students in states with high standards, regular testing and strict accountability for schools outperformed other students in math achievement over the past five years. However, only one-fourth of all students in grades four, eight and 12 nationwide were deemed "proficient" in math skills.
Tests showed that the biggest math achievement gains since 1992 occurred in North Carolina and Texas, whose strong accountability systems were models for Mr. Bush's plan. Eighth-graders in North Carolina, Ohio and Texas made the biggest gains since 1990, the results show.
"It seems to be the states that take high standards seriously, using achievement data to drive changes in schools, particularly curriculum and teaching, [are] where the action really is," said Matthew Gandal, vice president and Washington director of Achieve, a bipartisan independent group formed by governors and corporate executives five years ago to promote high academic standards and school performance accountability.
"If you don't use [test] data to change what you're doing in the classroom, you don't change curriculum, you don't get results," Mr. Gandal said.
The Center for Education Reform, another national group pushing more rigorous academic standards in public and private schools, noted that Georgia, North Carolina and Texas "were the only states to make headway in closing the black-white achievement gap" in math, according to the NAEP report, and Maryland and Texas were the only states to make gains in closing the white-Hispanic gap.
"Even so, 90 percent of Hispanic students in Maryland perform below proficiency," the center said in its analysis of the NAEP results.
"Unfortunately, scores for 12th graders were down across nearly all categories. … Furthermore, barely a quarter of fourth- and eighth-grade students are performing at or above proficient levels, which simply isn't sufficient preparation for college level work. Students who lack a basic understanding of fundamental math skills are not ready for high-level courses in high school or college," the analysis said.
The reform group leaders said the NAEP report supports Mr. Bush's insistence on stricter accountability because failing schools are leaving poor and minority children far behind despite federal spending aimed at low-income communities.
Children from welfare families scored 25 to 30 points below nonwelfare children on the NAEP math tests in all grades. Well over half of all eighth-graders from welfare families lacked even "basic" or "partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade," while fewer than one-fourth of eighth-graders from nonpoverty families scored below the basic math level.
A cultural change is needed among educators to achieve "a fairly thorough buy-in to the notion that all students can achieve high standards," Mr. Gandal said. "The belief system has to change so that we have common standards for all students, no excuses."
States such as New York, where the achievement gap among whites, blacks and Hispanics is worse than in the nation as a whole, need to "set a higher bar," he said.
Children attending private and religious schools far outperformed public-school students on the NAEP math tests. Ten percent more private students were rated proficient.
Virginia was among the top dozen states, with 22 percent of fourth- and eighth-graders ranked proficient and above. Virginia students on average scored seven points higher than in 1996.
Twenty percent of Maryland's fourth-graders were proficient, and 22 percent of its eighth-graders. The District's proficiency rating for both fourth and eighth-graders was just 5 percent.

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