In a Nov. 1 report by U.S. Education Department on a test known as the Nation's Report Card, only three in 10 American schoolchildren make the grade in reading, while four in 10 achieve passing grades in math.
In this year's National Assessment of Educational Progress, which measures fourth and eighth grade knowledge in the United States, scores rose from 2009 in every subject except reading, but continued to lag behind in comparisons with other world powers.
Driscoll noted that 2011 was a milestone for the NAEP. It's been 40 years since federal math and reading tests were implemented, but only 20 since they were able to report and compare state results and group them into three levels: basic, proficient and advanced.
The average fourth grade math score was 241, while the average for eighth graders was 283, each up one point from last year. This puts students at a basic level of understanding.
The average fourth grade reading score was 221, the same as in 2009, but eighth graders dropped a point to 265, putting students at the bare minimum of basic understanding. The average student, reports say, would be able to describe a character trait in a reading passage, but would be hard-pressed to identify the main problem or what struggles the character goes through.
Reading Lags, Math Rises
David P. Driscoll, chairman of the board that oversees the federal test, called the fourth grade reading results deeply disappointing. Driscoll also voiced his concern on the drop in literacy and reading and writing skills in American schools.
Given the usual rhetoric that Americans put too much time into the humanities while ignoring math and science, the fact that math scores have improved in an impressive and consistent manner over the past two decades while reading scores have suffered is a surprising result.
Driscoll, however, has a possible explanation. The former Massachusetts commissioner of education said that rising math scores may be the result of the subject being almost exclusively taught in a specific class in a school environment, meaning any effect on math scores will be due to how students are affected by changes to the American educational system.
Literacy skills, however, span several academic subjects and are often first taught at home, with exposure at home showing a significant effect on how well students perform on federal reading tests. What this amounts to, then, is a slim five percent gain over the past two decades in reading ability, in contrast to as high as a 27 percent jump in math skills.
We've made major gains in math over the past two decades, Driscoll told The New York Times, but in reading, frankly, we haven't.
No Child Left Behind
To the average American, a three in 10 and four in 10 average sounds pretty dreary as a marker of our educational system, and even math score improvement has begun to slow in recent years.
The modest increases in NAEP scores are reason for concern as much as optimism, U.S. Education secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. It's clear that achievement is not accelerating fast enough for our nation's children to compete in the knowledge economy of the 21st Century.
Higher marks on state tests, meanwhile, are sadly misleading. Duncan reports that almost all states give math and reading tests that are far easier to pass than their federal counterparts.
President Barack Obama has been working with Congress to change No Child Left Behind, the nation's main education law, from its current form, which requires all students pass state tests by 2014, or the states risk losing federal funding. Duncan says this system encourages states to water down testing quality in order to qualify for federal money.
No Child Left Behind has also failed to achieve one of its signature goals, closing the achievement gap between white children and minorities. In the 2011 Nation's Report Card, Asian American students continued to score higher than Whites, while Blacks, Hispanics, and low-income children across race and ethnic lines continued to have significantly lower scores.
In fourth-grade math, for instance, nine percent of white students performed at or above advanced level, compared to only two percent of Hispanic students and one percent of black students. A greater number of students than in 2009 were also found to be eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch, a common measure of poverty in education.
It's more of the same: It's good that the long-term improvement trend is being shared among different economic groups and racial-ethnic groups, but we're not seeing closing in gaps, Kevin Carey, policy director of the D.C.-based think tank Education Sector, told The Huffington Post today. There have been other time periods where we saw rapid gap closing, in the 1970s in particular. We haven't been in that for a long time.
Impetus on Parents, Better Programs
State-mandated education, however, can only do so much, those overseeing the National Assessment of Education Progress report.
Improvements in elementary and middle school education, including after-school programs and funding to allow for a greater variety of teaching methods will likely improve performance, but children's learning is dependent on many factors outside school as well, which help to explain the gap between U.S. academic achievement and those of some higher-performing countries.
I'm disappointed but not surprised by these results, said Sharon Darling, founder of the National Center for Family Literacy. NCFL is a Kentucky-based organization that works to help parents improve their children's educations at home. Children spend five times as much times outside the classroom as they do in school, Darling said, and our country has 30 million parents or caregivers who are not good readers themselves, so they pass illiteracy on to their children.
In the meantime, President Obama and Secretary Duncan are continuing to work on things from a defederal end. The recently proposed American Jobs Act would give $30 billion to encourage teacher retention and benefits, with an additional $30 billion to repair and modernize schools through methods like funding science and computer labs and adding books to school libraries.
These results continue a trend of progress both in raising achievements and closing gaps, Daria Hall, K-12 policy director for the think tank Education Trust, said. Hall cautioned, however, that progress is still far, far too slow.
We ought to as a country acknowledge what these results mean in terms of the hard work of educators, Hall said, but not for a second think we can take our foot off the gas.