U.S. School Gap Closes, Slowly

Washington — The nation’s 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds are posting better scores in math and reading tests than their counterparts did 40 years ago, and the achievement gap between white students and those of color still persists but is narrowing, according to new federal government data released yesterday.

The scores, collected regularly since the 1970s from federal tests administered to public and private school students age 9, 13, and 17, paint a picture of steady student achievement that contradicts the popular notion that U.S. educational progress has stalled.

“When you break out the data over the long term and ask who is improving, the answer is . . . everyone,” said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a nonprofit organization that works to close the achievement gap between poor and privileged children. “And the good news, given where they started, is that black and Latino children have racked up some of the biggest gains of all.”

The data, part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress long-term trend study, come from tests given every four years in math and reading. The most recent results, from 2012, show that 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds did better in both math and reading than students who took the first reading test in 1971 and the first math test in 1973.

Although the younger test-takers made significant progress, scores of 17-year-olds remained relatively flat. But 7-year-olds who struggle the most, those in the bottom percentiles, showed gains in 2012 compared with 40 years ago.

The trend lines show jagged progress over time. But for 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds in math and reading, and 17-year-olds in reading, there has been a steady climb in scores since 2004, when No Child Left Behind, the main federal K-12 education law, began taking effect.

No Child Left Behind required school systems to publicly report test scores for the first time, including information about how minorities, English-language learners and special-education students were performing. Observers say that transparency laid bare racial disparities and put pressure on school districts to improve.

Efforts in Congress to update the law have stalled, with Democrats arguing federal oversight of public education should continue and Republicans saying the federal role should shrink.

Data released yesterday show that blacks and Hispanics at all age levels made more significant progress than white students in their scores since the 1970s, narrowing the achievement gap. In some cases, such as reading scores for 9-year-olds, the black-white gap was nearly cut in half. Only the white-Hispanic gap among 9-year-olds in math has not changed since the 1970s.

In addition to narrowing the gap with white students, blacks and Hispanics performed better in 2012 in reading and math when compared with the same racial groups in the 1970s.

Despite progress, stubborn differences between racial groups remain, Haycock said.

“If we have a crisis in American education, it is this: that we aren’t yet moving fast enough to educate the ‘minorities’ who will soon comprise a ‘new majority’ of our children nearly as well as we educate the old majority,” she said. “At best, students of color are just now performing at the level of white students a generation ago.”