It was hard to find the silver lining in the tepid results from the Nation's Report Card issued last week by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Math proficiency for fourth graders and eighth graders ticked up one percentage point to 40 percent and 35 percent, respectively. That's the highest level yet, but it would be a failing grade in any school. Reading proficiency was flat for fourth graders at 34 percent, although it moved up about two points for eighth graders to 34 percent. Not so awesome.
There is good news to be teased out of the report, however. Proficiency rates in math have more than doubled since 1990, which is no small feat. In both reading and math, fourth and eighth graders are on a two-decade upward trajectory. What's more, as former George W. Bush senior education adviser Sandy Kress points out, test scores among minorities have improved dramatically over the last twenty years. For example, math scores among black fourth graders are up 32 points, or almost three grade levels, since 1992.
Yet the overall numbers are dispiriting. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the results were "reason for concern as well as optimism." Reaction elsewhere seemed to dwell more on the concern than the optimism. "In both subjects, achievement gaps remain and are cause for real concern," said House Education and the Workforce Committee ranking member George Miller, D-Calif. The best take on the NAEP results came from the teachers, whose schools bear the brunt of massive budget cuts in many states. "The progress that has been made is a credit to the grit and hard work of millions of educators," said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. "But it's not enough, especially at a time when families are being devastated by the economy and childhood poverty has soared to tragic levels."
What can we learn from the nation's report card, and how can it affect education policy? Where are the limitations in the NAEP data, if any? What is the most important finding from the report? What is the least important finding? What public policies have impacted the steady climb in math proficiency? Can those policies be replicated for reading?