Amid all the worry over the state of American education, a long look back can actually feel good.
The latest returns in a four-decade study by the
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released Thursday served as a reminder that we have, at least for the most part, gotten better.
The report, in what is known as the Nation’s Report Card, found that U.S. students are getting stronger in reading and math. The achievement gaps between white children and minority children have been narrowing.
The study involving more than 50,000 students across the nation noted there has been significant growth in performance among 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds.
Even with 17-year-olds, where mostly flat scores raised concerns, there was still some good news, said Peggy Carr, associate commissioner withthe National Center for Education Statistics.
Just 20 years ago, dropout rates among 17-year-olds were twice what they are now, especially among Hispanic students. Hispanic high school dropout rates have dropped from 32 percent to 15 percent, she said. Many students who would have been dropouts in the past are being tested now.
“It’s kind of a bumpy road, but we’re continuing to move forward,” said Bob Bartman, former Missouri commissioner of education and now the superintendent of the Center School District in south Kansas City.
“Our public schools have continued to improve,” he said, “not necessarily to the satisfaction of the politicians, but if you pick a time in the past and compare, (today) more students are successful, including students who speak foreign languages and students with special needs.”
The study found that 9-year-olds overall have seen 13 points in growth in reading since 1971, and 13-year-olds improved by eight points — both considered significant.
In math, 9-year-olds have improved by 25 points, 13-year-olds by 19 points, also significant.
The performance gaps between white students and black students and between white students and Hispanic students have narrowed significantly at all of the age groups.
Closing the gaps is growing in importance, not just as a social-justice issue, but an economic issue.
The study showed the changing face of American students. In the 1970s, 80 percent of the students assessed were white, 13 percent were black and 6 percent were Hispanic. In 2012, 56 percent were white, 15 percent were black and 21 percent were Hispanic.
The question remains whether the improvement is moving fast enough. In the last four years, the gains have been slight.
The U.S. has been decidedly mediocre or slightly above average in many tests that make international comparisons.
American 15-year-old students scored average in the latest reading tests by the Program for International Student Assessment, ranking somewhere between seventh and 20th among 33 participating nations. But the U.S. came in below average in math, ranking between 17th and 28th.
Attention particularly needs to be redirected at high schools, said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education.
The No Child Left Behind Act, which focused testing on grades three through eight, may deserve some credit for boosts in 9- and 13-year-old student performance particularly in the mid-2000s, but neglect at the high school level showed, Wise said.
“The No Child Left Behind Act largely ignored high schools, and the consequences are clear,” he said. “The average performance of the nation’s high school students has remained flat for 40 years, while the economy’s demands have ramped up tremendously.”
Educators feel the pressure more than ever with efforts underway to make student test scores pivotal in teacher and principal evaluations. Schools are compared to schools. Districts to districts. States to states.
Missouri keeps a data dashboard, showing it generally performing near the middle, just above average, in multiple measures as it sets targets to be in the top 10 by 2020. Kansas keeps score as well, also finding itself just above average.
Through it all, said Andrea Flinders, head of the Kansas City Federation of Teachers and an educator since the late 1970s, “Teachers do a good job. They are continuing to do a good job, and they are getting better at it, and we’re not getting credit for it.”
The work has to go on to improve U.S. schools, said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, but the long-term study should give the work encouragement.
“This should get us beyond the finger-pointing over whether our children are in crisis or not,” she said. “Our schools are getting better — for everyone. If there is a crisis, it’s whether we’re moving fast enough to serve the new majority as well as we serve the present majority.”