Federal data released today by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” suggest the achievement gaps between black and white students and between white and Hispanic students have narrowed since the early 1970s, when the test was first administered.
All 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds performed better in 2012 in reading than they did in 1971 and better in math than they did in 1973, when the long-term tests were first given. However, 17-year-olds performed about the same in math and reading as they did 40 years ago, the data suggest.
There has been some considerable hype about this data in the media, including a report in Education Week, which declares the “achievement gaps for black and Hispanic youths have declined by substantial margins in reading and math.” Focusing on reading scores, USA Today said, “Young African-American and Hispanic students’ reading skills, while still lagging those of white peers, grew faster than white students’ skills from 1971 to 2012. … The data suggest that black and Hispanic students still have a long way to go—they are now reading nearly as well as white 9-year-olds did in 1971.”
The long-term tests, which are the subject of the current study, are different from the regular NAEP test in that the content tested is slightly different, students are selected by age instead of grade, and results are reported only on a national level, compared to the regular NAEP, which breaks down results by state.
The real story behind the data
I hesitated to report these results, but since so many other news agencies have made such a big deal over them, I thought it only right.
While the numbers continue to show a narrowing black-white and Hispanic-white achievement gap in both reading and math, most of the narrowing came before 2008. Since the test was last administered, the only statistically significant narrowing of an achievement gap came when comparing gains by 13-year-old Hispanic students to their white counterparts in math.
All other decreases in the raw gap numbers were statistically insignificant and should be read with that in mind.
A debunking of the ‘schools are failing’ myth
The most significant take-home message from the long-term NAEP is that schools aren’t “failing” when it comes to reading and math. They are, in fact, improving a little, except for 17-year-olds.
But they aren’t improving fast enough, in my opinion. The 21st century has brought new problems, new challenges, and new strategies for solving them. It has also brought a new demographic composition to the US: Hispanics will soon be a majority of our population, and we need to do more to improve the quality of education for them than we appear to be doing.