Mixed Report Card for U.S. Schools

The Education Department releases its latest report card for the nation's schools. U.S. fourth graders scored higher on reading and math tests in 2005 than in 2003, and the achievement gap between white and minority students continues to narrow. But results for eighth graders are less encouraging.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today the Education Department released its latest report card on how the nation's schools are doing, and there's some good news. US fourth-graders scored higher on reading and math tests this year than they did two years ago, and the achievement gap between white and minority students continued to narrow. But the results for eighth-graders were less encouraging. Scores were up slightly in math and down a bit in reading. NPR's Rachel Jones reports.

RACHEL JONES reporting:

To understand the results of this year's National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, you have to look at the bigger picture. The tests are taken every two years, so there's not likely to be huge change with each data release. But some researchers believe that the generally steady improvement since 1990 means American students are definitely on the right track, especially in this era of high-stakes educational testing. Take fourth-grade math scores, for instance.

Dr. GROVER WHITEHURST (Acting Commissioner, National Center for Education Statistics): In mathematics, we see an increase in the percentage of fourth-graders performing at or above proficient for all five of the nation's major racial ethnic groups.

JONES: Grover Whitehurst is acting commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP test. Since it was overhauled in the early 1990s, the test has yielded a sort of mixed bag of steady improvement vs. frustrating stalls. Today's results were most encouraging on one key measure: the achievement gap between white and minority students. Reducing that gap is a major goal of the No Child Left Behind law signed by President Bush in 2002. The president today said the NAEP results are evidence that the law is working.

One of the tenets of No Child Left Behind is that it requires states to report test results for individual racial and ethnic groups, a process called disaggregation.

Mr. LUIS RAMOS (National Assessment Governing Board): The positive of this is the fact that we are capable and focused on disaggregating the data.

JONES: Luis Ramos sits on the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP. He welcomes the latest report card because it highlights the progress of poor and minority students.

Mr. RAMOS: And there are many educators that are already tagging our kids that if they come from a poor neighborhood, they come from a single-family home, they're going to fail, and that's the mentality. And that's wrong.

JONES: But critics of test-driven reform say the progress today is pretty incremental. Monty Neill co-directs the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, a group that opposes many standardized tests.

Mr. MONTY NEILL (Co-Director, National Center for Fair and Open Testing): While scores have tended to go up on NAEP at grade four--and in math they went up fairly solidly for a while--they've now leveled out. At grade eight there has been little gain in math, and it's been flat in reading for a long time.

JONES: Neill says standardized testing does not address the main reason poor and minority students get labeled, and that's because their schools have fewer resources. But NAEP officials believe these kinds of assessments can give schools and policy-makers a better understanding of what's needed for students to improve. Rachel Jones, NPR News, Washington.

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