National Edition

U.S. students make small gains in reading and mathematics

Published: Thursday, Nov. 7 2013 8:35 a.m. MST

Sally Jo Gilbert de Vargas, right, sixth-grade house administrator at Whitman Middle School in Seattle, tutors summer school students including Brook Engida, 13, left, in math, Thursday, June 28, 2012. U.S. students improved slightly in reading and mathematics proficiency, according to The Nation's Report Card, an assessment of students in all states that happens every two years.

Ted S. Warren, AP

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American K-12 students got better at mathematics and reading over the past two years, but not by much.

The 2013 edition of the Nation’s Report Card, which tests math and reading achievement of U.S. fourth- and eighth-graders every two years, showed an overall gain of about 1 percentage point in the number of students who read and do math problems proficiently.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the results were encouraging, though modest.

Test results showed no progress made in narrowing achievement gaps between the performance of white and black students or white and Hispanic students, Duncan said. And the U.S. is still behind top-performing countries, he added.

"We're not yet seeing a transformational change nationwide," he said.

However, the 2013 Nation's Report Card revealed the strongest performance in the history of the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, which was first given in 1990.

All states that implemented Common Core State Standards, which the Obama administration backs, showed improvement in at least one area of the test, and none saw a decline in scores, Duncan said. Those states are Kentucky, Georgia, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota and Mississippi.

Accumulating gains

The Nation’s Report Card is the chief continuing assessment of what students across the nation know. Tests are given periodically in various subjects to sample groups of students in each state. The tests change little over the years, providing a way to compare student results between states and over time.

For the first time, results of the 2013 Nation’s Report Card are available at an interactive website that lets parents and educators sift the data in many ways, including by state, ethnicity and gender. Visit nationsreportcard.gov to explore the data.

This year’s overall gains aren't large, but they are still good news, said Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.

“Gains tend to be small from one test administration to another, but they stack up,” Buckley said. “We don’t see giant jumps, and would be suspicious if we did.”

The Nation’s Report Card tests for mathematics and reading were first administered to U.S. public and private school students in 1990. Between 1990 and 2013, the number of proficient' math students rose by 7 percentage points for fourth-graders and eighth-graders. Reading scores improved over that period, too, though not as much — by 2 percentage points for fourth-graders and 1 percentage point for eighth-graders.

The test results fall into three achievement levels: “Basic” denotes partial mastery of grade-appropriate work, “proficient” refers to solid performance at grade level and “advanced” represents superior work. Since the tests were first given in 1990, the number of students below the 'basic' level steadily declined, and the number of 'proficient' students increased, especially for mathematics.

In 1990, 50 percent of fourth-grade students scored below the 'basic' level; in 2013, only 17 percent did. At the eighth-grade level, 48 percent were below the 'basic' level in 1990; 26 percent scored below the 'basic' level in 2013.

Mind the gap

The report card holds good news for Hispanic students, the only racial or ethnic group to improve mathematics scores at both grades 4 and 8. Worrisome achievement gaps between white students and those of other ethnicities and races persist unchanged, however.

“Over the last two years, neither the white/black or the white/Hispanic gap has narrowed,” Buckley said.

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