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Report Card Shows Gains, Lingering Achievement Gap

The release of The Nation’s Report Card: Trends in Academic Progress in Reading and Mathematics 2008 was greeted by education advocates with joy for its demonstration of higher achievement among most groups tested, but also with disappointment for its clear evidence that achievement gaps persist and that scores for 17-year-olds have remained stagnant since the 1970s.

In reading and math, 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds showed modest gains from 2004, and more substantial gains from 1971 and 1973, the first time students were tested in reading and math, respectively. Although blacks and Hispanics have narrowed the gap with whites in both subjects since the 1970s, this trend has not continued since 2004, except in reading scores for black 9- and 13-year-olds and Hispanic 9-year-olds.

Critics point to the results from 17-year-olds as proof that high schools have failed to sustain the momentum students have developed in elementary and middle school. Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, says on the education reform organization’s Web site that the data on 17-year-olds “confirms what employers, college professors and high school graduates themselves are saying: that there is an expectations gap between what we expect of high school students and what it takes to be successful after graduation.”

But is the news about 17-year-olds all bad? Peggy G. Carr, associate commissioner in the Assessment Division of the National Center for Education Statistics doesn’t think so. In an online chat shortly after the report was released, she explained that the data on 17-year-olds is an example of what statisticians call Simpson’s Paradox. Scores for white, black and Hispanic students were all higher than in the 1970s, but the composite score remained flat because the lowest-scoring groups—blacks and Hispanics—constituted a greater proportion of the student population in 2008 than they did in the 1970s.

Still, the fact that black and Hispanic students showed few significant gains in all three age groups since 2004, despite NCLB, is sure be a factor when congressional discussion on NCLB reauthorization is revived.