U.S. students are making progress in reading and math, but the advances continue to be clouded by stubbornly high gaps between scores for white children and their black and Hispanic counterparts, according to a major new survey Tuesday from the National Center for Education Statistics.
The survey measuring fourth- and eighth-grade scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) standardized tests found significant progress for both grade levels in mathematics and a slight improvement among eighth-grade readers. Reading scores among fourth graders, however, remained flat on the study's 500-point scale - and the results leave America's schools far behind the universal proficiency goals set by the 2002 No Child Left Behind law.
Since 1990, when the first NCES standardized tests were administered, scores for all ethnic groups have risen dramatically, but white students have remained far ahead. White fourth-graders scored an average of 249 points on math tests, while Hispanic students trailed at 229 points and black children were even further behind, coming in at 224 points on average.
The gulfs only widened by eighth grade, with black students 31 points behind and Hispanic children 23 points back, according to NCES.
On reading exams, the ethnic gaps topped 20 points in both grade levels.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday that while the overall average scores are encouraging, much work remains to be done.
"The scores are reason for concern as much as optimism," he said in a statement. "It's clear that achievement is not accelerating fast enough for our nation's children to compete in the knowledge economy of the 21st century."
Educators are also troubled by the lack of progress among fourth-grade readers. Since 1992, the average score has risen by only four points, from 217 to 221, and since 2007, the figure has remained stagnant.
"Even though this wasn't a decline, I see it as losing ground," Doris Hicks, principal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School for Science and Technology in New Orleans, told reporters Tuesday after the results were released.
While students' performance isn't accelerating as fast as many would like, few states are slipping backward. Only two states, New York and Missouri, saw average mathematics scores drop since 2009. Four jurisdictions, including the District, saw students' performance on math exams rise over the past two years.
Five states, including Maryland, saw scores climb in fourth-grade math only, while nine states saw higher marks among eighth-graders.
The new results come at a time when congressional leaders are crafting bills to replace the decade-old No Child Left Behind law. One proposal, drafted by Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, and Sen. Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican, would limit federal involvement to only the bottom 5 percent of schools and the 5 percent with the greatest achievement gaps between ethnic groups.
But some believe Tuesday's report demonstrates that achievement gaps remain a serious problem in more than just 5 percent of schools, and are urging lawmakers to keep strict federal accountability standards in place for all districts.
"We're headed in the right direction ... but that doesn't mean that we can afford to take our foot off the gas pedal, as the current Senate proposal would do," said Kati Haycock, president of the nonprofit advocacy group The Education Trust.
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