WASHINGTON — Math skills among fourth- and eighth-graders are showing steady improvement and fourth-graders' reading scores are also rising, according to a federal report released Tuesday. But white students are still scoring far higher than African American and Hispanic students on a standardized assessment of academic proficiency, and that achievement gap is most prominent in California.
Nationwide, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which bills itself as "the nation's report card," showed substantial gains in math and more modest gains in reading. Available at nationsreportcard.gov, the report accompanying the test results put math scores at their highest level since 1992, when the test was first given. But the discrepancy in scores between white and black eighth-graders and white and Hispanic fourth- and eighth-graders has changed little over time, the report found.
"Closing the achievement gap more quickly is the major challenge of the next three to five years, particularly in the large states with fast-growing minority student populations," said David W. Gordon, Sacramento County's superintendent of schools and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the assessments' administration.
The math and reading assessments are given every two years to a representative sample of fourth- and eighth-grade public school students in each state. As in 2005, California was among the lowest in the nation, scoring nine or 10 points below the national average in both subjects at both grade levels. Massachusetts, as in 2005, was first in all categories; Vermont and the Department of Defense school system were tied with Massachusetts for eighth-grade reading scores.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said that ranking states against each other was inherently unfair because each had different accountability measures. Even so, he said, "it is also clear that California schools have much work to do to raise the achievement level of all groups of students."
The results "reflect the trends we see on our state standards-based tests, and also the challenges faced in educating California's diverse population. . . . These results point to our stark and persistent racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps in our schools that must be addressed if our students and our state are to thrive in the demanding global economy," he said.
The score differences between white students in California and their African American or Hispanic peers are broader than in Texas, Florida and New York, other large states with large ethnically and racially diverse populations, Gordon said. In all areas tested, the gap between white and Hispanic students in California was four to eight points higher than the average gap nationwide.
Bruce Fuller, an education and public policy professor at UC Berkeley, said that even though the state's scores had changed little from two years ago, California schools should be commended -- particularly in reading -- because of the large number of students who live in homes where English is not spoken.
Maintaining reading scores is a significant accomplishment, Fuller said, not just because of California's diverse population, but also because nationwide fourth-grade students' scores improved only by four points since 1992 and eight-graders' by three. Math scores, by contrast, increased by 20 points for fourth-graders and by 13 points for eighth-grade students in the same period.
"Substantial improvement in reading achievement is still eluding us as a nation," said Amanda P. Avallone, National Assessment Governing Board vice chairwoman and an eighth-grade English teacher in Boulder, Colo. She said schools with successful reading programs had reading as a separate subject until sixth grade, but many end the separation in third grade.
Both President Bush and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings cited the higher overall scores as a reason to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, the administration's education policy initiative that took effect in 2002. The program emphasizes annual testing to ensure that, by 2014, all students achieve a specific level of proficiency in math and reading. Congress will vote later this year on reauthorizing the law.
"These scores confirm that No Child Left Behind is working and producing positive results for students across the country," Bush said in a statement.
But Fuller said the report's results were not a sign that No Child Left Behind was working.
"The gains we saw today are lumpy around the nation," Fuller said, adding that from 2005 to 2007, only a few states showed improvement in math and reading. The scores in most fell or stayed the same, he said.
"We're five years and about $90 billion into No Child, and we're finally seeing some modest uptakes in students' scores," he said.