- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 14, 2005

America’s 9-year-olds are doing better in reading and mathematics than they did three decades ago, while 17-year-olds showed “no measurable changes” in school achievement over the same period, according to test results released yesterday.

In reading and math, 9-year-olds scored higher in 2004 than in any other year since 1971, when the standardized National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test began being administered.

Average reading scores of 9-year-olds have risen 10 points on a 500-point scale, from 209 to 219 since 1990. Their math scores rose 11 points, from 230 to 241.

The Nation’s Report Card also showed that during the same time period, 13-year-olds had a two-point gain in reading and an 11-point gain in math. Seventeen-year-olds slipped five points in reading and gained two points in math.

The 2004 results are from a representative sample of more than 28,000 public and private school students tested in the three age groups, said Grover J. Whitehurst, acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.

“Almost half the increase came since 1999,” he said.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings credited students, teachers and parents for getting behind the national push for school improvement and accountability.

“It is no coincidence that progress accelerated so rapidly in this time period,” Mrs. Spellings said.

“We are at the beginning of the journey and certainly have room for improvement,” she said. “Changing the direction of America’s schools is like turning the Queen Mary, a large ship whose captain can’t change course on a dime.”

The report also found that 9-year-olds have greatly increased their reading levels in the past few decades, with one-fourth saying they read more than 20 pages a day. That is twice the number of children their age in 1984 who said they read more than 20 pages a day. Most 13- and 17-year-olds said they read less than those in their age group two decades ago.

Seventeen-year-olds who said they read more than 20 pages a day scored an average of 29 points higher on the test than high school students who said they read five or fewer pages daily.

Among other findings:

• Girls perform better than boys in reading at all age levels, while boys perform better in math. Among 17-year-olds, the reading achievement gap between girls and boys is 14 points; in math, boys have a three-point advantage.

• Black 13-year-olds registered a 22-point gain on reading tests since the first NAEP test in 1971. The achievement gap between black and white students has been cut from 39 to 22 points. In math, the gap has decreased from 35 to 23 points.

c Hispanic 9-year-olds registered a 12-point reading gain since 1999, but 13- and 17-year-olds had lower scores last year than in 1999. In math, Hispanic 9- and 13-year-olds posted significant gains, but 17-year-olds had lower scores than five years ago.

The gap between Hispanic and white 17-year-olds was 29 points in reading and 24 points in math, but the gap has narrowed since 1999.

Darvin M. Winick, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), which oversees NAEP testing, credited achievement gains of younger students to “greater emphasis on getting kids started earlier” in reading through programs such as the Bush administration’s Reading First Initiative.

“It’s easier to bend the twig than the root of the full-grown tree,” he said.

Although he noted the “very good news” in the report, Mr. Winick said he was “particularly concerned about the results of 17-year-olds.” The results “question how good high schools are in this country,” he said.

About 56 percent of students in public and private schools took NAEP reading and math tests last year, which is well below the NCES reporting target of 85 percent for 13- and 17-year-olds, the report said.

“It is always a challenge in getting 17-year-olds to participate” in the voluntary NAEP tests, Mr. Winick said.

Charles E. Smith, NAGB executive director, said the board is considering incentives for students to take the test, including paying participants.

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