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Nation’s Math Scores Up, Reading Flat

The No Child Left Behind law is President Bush’s education initiative requiring states to test students annually as a prerequisite for receiving federal funds.

Based on national averages, achievement in mathematics rose to its highest level in 15 years, with most of the gains for both students in grades four and eight occurring since 2000.

The test, called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, showed 36 percent of fourth graders could handle challenging material, up from 32 percent in 2003. Among eighth graders, 30 percent reached at least that “proficient” level, up from 29 percent. The test covered geometry, data analysis and probability, and algebra.

Reading results for fourth graders showed some improvement over both 2002 and 2003, but the reading performance of eighth graders showed a small decline since the last assessment. Within the pool of fourth graders tested, the average reading score rose one point to 219 on a scale of 500, but the percentage of students who showed mastery of demanding material, 31 percent, remained unchanged from 2003.

The same share of eighth graders, 31 percent, was proficient in reading, a drop compared to 2003. Reading skills have remained basically flat for the past 13 years. The test measured whether students could form a general understanding, develop an interpretation, make connections to the text and examine content and structure, according the NAEP Web site.

The reading scores of fourth grade black, Hispanic and low-income students showed the biggest improvement.

The test, which bills itself as “the nation’s report card” has been used as a yardstick of student achievement since 1969.

“These results indicate progress,” said Darvin Winick, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board that sets policy for NAEP. “The results are similar to those from the national, long-term trend assessments of 9- and 13-year-old students, which NAGB released last July. Parents and educators should be pleased with recent successes, especially at the elementary level. While still large, the differences between those students classified as eligible and not eligible for subsidized lunches continue to shrink.”

More than 165,000 fourth grade students and 159,000 eighth grade students nationwide participated in the NAEP assessment in reading earlier this year. About 172,000 fourth grade and 162,000 eighth grade students nationwide participated in the math assessment.

Experts caution against using the scores to directly measure the success of No Child Left Behind because there are many factors beyond the control of the test.

“Let’s put it this way,” Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told the Washington Post, “reading scores were flat and math scores on the rise before No Child Left Behind, and reading scores are flat and math scores are still up after No Child Left Behind. It’s impossible to know whether NCLB had an impact — either positively or negatively.”

Experts suggest changing school demographics, which show a doubling of the Hispanic student body, may be slowing the progress toward English proficiency.

“These students create enormous labors costs to the schools because they need additional attention, and NCLB forces educators to deal with those kids,” said Winick.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said the scores indicate the administration is on the right track “particularly with younger students who have benefited from the core principles of annual assessment and disaggregation of data.”

“Most of the investment has been in grades K-3, where we can get the most bang for the buck, with little kids — getting them on track to be good readers,” she said. The president has also proposed extra help for older students,” she added, “because we need not give up on middle and high school students who have intractable reading issues.”

The scores showed that the achievement gap between whites and minorities is narrowing in every category except eighth grade reading, where the gap between blacks and whites remained constant.

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