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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.

A report card is out today for the nation's schools and for the federal No Child Left Behind Law - national test scores in reading and math for fourth and eighth graders. How did they do? Well, here's the short version. Since 2005, U.S. students have made slight gains in Math, even smaller gains in reading -just one point for eighth graders, seemingly little to cheer about for supporters of the law that has pumped billions of extra dollars into the nation's schools.

As NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, efforts to put a spin on the numbers began immediately.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Under No Child Left Behind from 2002 to 2007, reading scores for all groups, except Asian students, have remained flat. And though the poorest readers appear to be doing slightly better overall, there's been no significant change in the percentage of students reading at or above grade level.

Only three states - Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, and the District of Columbia -registered meaningful gains in reading in both eighth and fourth grades. Thirty states showed no change in either grade. Not exactly what Bush administration officials wanted to hear, although, in a conference call with reporters, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings put her own spin on the small gains since 2005.

Secretary MARGARET SPELLINGS (U.S. Department of Education): Obviously, we're pleased with the result. It still shows we have work to do, no doubt about it. But it's really a very affirming day for the standards and accountability movement.

SANCHEZ: Spellings also seemed impressed with the modest decrease in the gap between white and black students in reading, a gap that continues to hover at about 30 points. The real good news is in the math results. The catch is that some of the most dramatic gains began long before No Child Left Behind became law.

Since 1990, the percentage of students performing at grade level or above in math has tripled. And no one has improved more than black fourth graders. They saw their math scores spike 34 points in the last 17 years. Again, Margaret Spellings insists that it's because of No Child Left Behind.

Sec. SPELLINGS: We're going in the right direction, and we don't need to let up now.

SANCHEZ: At least in math, schools do seem to be doing something right. What exactly schools are doing in math that they can't do in reading, though, raises lots of questions. And you're probably not going to find any answers in today's data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.

Dr. Jerry Weast is superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Dr. JERRY WEAST (Superintendent, Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland): The idea of measurement is not a bad idea. But to do it once a year on a national test that really doesn't tell anybody anything other than how a school is doing…

SANCHEZ: That's not very helpful, says Weast. NAEP tests also bear no resemblance to what schools are actually teaching, because every state's curriculum is different. The one in Montgomery County is, by all accounts, a really good one. And he points to Shady Grove Middle School as an example.

(Soundbite of students talking)

SANCHEZ: This is Kate Basescu(ph) eighth grade algebra class.

Ms. KATE BASESCU (Algebra Teacher, Shady Grove Middle School): Division, correct.

Unidentified Man: So I do divide?

Ms. BASESCU: Right.

Unidentified Man: So it was (unintelligible), so it's three is less than X greater than five.

Ms. BASESCU: Okay. And then, now, what's five divided by three? You can't forget about that.

Unidentified Man: What is five divided by three?

Ms. BASESCU: You tell me. No, no, no. Just leave it in the fraction.

SANCHEZ: Today, these eighth graders are on a math scavenger hunt. Looking for algebraic formulas and problem solving in teams. It's the way kids learn, says Basescu.

Ms. BASESCU: So it is a fast-paced - it's geared towards the high school class. They do get a high school credit for this. They do take the high school exam. So as far as being prepared, yes, I do think they're prepared. And our job is to move them along and prepare them further. But no, algebra is the foundation. I think everybody needs to have that foundation in order for them to be successful.

SANCHEZ: Unfortunately, says Superintendent Jerry Weast, schools like this are the exception, not the rule, because in most states, schools have watered down their standards. That's what the meager gains in NAEP reading and math scores are really showing us, says Weast. Because under No Child Left Behind, no state wants to adopt high standards and pay the political price for looking bad on any test, including NAEP.

Dr. WEAST: Forget the politics. We ought to be concentrating on the conditions necessary to get every child to - at high lever of rigor. If we won't, we won't compete. And if we don't compete, we lose hope. We lose hope, we got a big problem.

SANCHEZ: A problem that Congress will tackle in the next few months as it moves to reauthorize No Child Left Behind.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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