WASHINGTON — Although fourth- and eighth-grade students have shared slow but steady math gains for more than a decade, eighth-graders' reading scores have stalled while their younger peers' scores have continued to rise, according to test results released Tuesday.
"We need to look into reading deficiencies in middle and high schools in depth. That should be the next national imperative," said Darvin Winick, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests.
The most recent tests — also known as the Nation's Report Card — show that while fourth-grade reading scores are higher than they've been in 15 years, eighth-graders' scores are roughly the same as in 1998.
For example, 52 percent of fourth-graders can use context clues to figure out what "pleading" means in a given sentence. By contrast, after reading a short passage, 41 percent of eighth-graders struggled to understand what a character's actions say about her.
The test results come as Congress heads toward what probably will prove a contentious debate on changes to the No Child Left Behind law, which faces a reauthorization deadline at the end of this month. The sweeping education measure, which President Bush signed into law in 2002, seeks to help all students do grade-level math and reading work by 2014. It includes a requirement that all states participate in the Nation's Report Card.
The results of these tests, given this year to roughly 700,000 fourth- and eighth-graders across the country, provide the only national snapshot of how American students are doing. The tests, administered every two years, don't assess the reasons behind gains or losses, however.
Since 2005, both fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores increased in just four jurisdictions: the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Florida and Maryland.
The picture was far rosier for fourth- and eighth-graders in math. The District of Columbia, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Vermont all saw gains.
"We know what happens but not why," Winick said. "The focus on reform seems to have had a positive effect. It is partially what states were doing and partially federal. I think we could say the focus on data that NCLB encourages has had a very positive impact."
Determining the degree of that impact is another matter.
Experts are split on whether gains in math and reading on the Nation's Report Card are part of a years-long and inevitable upswing in student achievement or proof that No Child Left Behind is working.
"It's really a very affirming day for the standards and accountability movement," Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said after the Nation's Report Card results were released. She said that the fourth-grade reading scores, which have been increasing since the 1990s, had received a boost because "NCLB is largely about the early grades and emphasis on reading instruction."
Educational advocacy groups such as Education Trust caution against using the National Assessment of Educational Progress as "a referendum" on No Child Left Behind, however.
"What is pretty clear is that standards-based reform has helped us to raise the quality of instruction, the consistency of instruction and has helped us raise student achievement," said Ross Wiener, a vice president for Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit organization aimed at ensuring quality education for all students. "But some of that in some states was taking place before NCLB."
In 2005, several studies by groups such as Education Trust showed large discrepancies between fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading scores on the Nation's Report Card and states' self-reported No Child Left Behind-related scores. The ensuing debate renewed the tense back-and-forth in educational and political circles over high-stakes testing and varied standards across states.
Such discussions probably will be part of the debate over reauthorizing No Child Left Behind. That debate also will include ways to better shrink the so-called "achievement gap" between racial and ethnic minorities, students with disabilities, students who speak limited English and poor children, and their peers.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress results show that the math gaps between black and white fourth- and eighth-graders have narrowed, but such gaps remain the same when comparing Hispanic students with their Anglo peers.
A similar trend plays out in reading, where the achievement gap between black and white fourth-graders also narrowed. The reading achievement gaps remained the same for Hispanic and non-Hispanic white fourth- and eighth-graders and black and white eighth-graders.
Educational experts at the National Assessment Governing Board and across the country point out that math performance is easier to target because it's mainly taught in school. Reading ability, which has been the focus of a number of No Child Left Behind-related efforts, also is influenced by literacy at home.
While more children who speak limited English and have disabilities are taking the test than ever before, it's difficult to get an accurate picture of progress because each state is allowed to decide how many of these students to exclude from the national tests.
"Overall, the NAEP results show that we are moving in the right direction, and I am encouraged by them," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee and one of the authors of the No Child Left Behind law. "The scores also show that we still have much work to do to close academic achievement gaps and help every child to learn."