The 2013 version of the Nation's Report Card, taken from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), shows that the vast majority of US fourth and eighth graders have a way to go with academic performance in math and reading, but they are doing better than their predecessors in both subjects with record scores.
According to the report card, 42% of fourth graders and 35% of eighth graders scored at or above the proficient level in math. In reading, 35% of fourth graders and 36% of eighth graders scored at or above the proficient level, writes Kimberly Hefling of The Associated Press.
White students again outperformed their Hispanic and African-American counterparts, reinforcing just how tough it is to close achievement gaps among racial groups despite years of focus on the problem.
In the United States, kids performed better on the test than they did in the early 1990s when such tracking started, with greater improvement in math than in reading. Students of all races have shown improvement over the years.
Compared to results from 2011, the 2013 report card shows average incremental gains of about one or two points on a 500-point scale in math and reading in both grades, although the one-point gain in fourth grade reading was not considered statistically significant.
"Every two years, the gains tend to be small, but over the long run they stack up," said Jack Buckley, commissioner of the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics. Buckley said he was "heartened" by some of the results, "but there are also some areas where I'd hoped to see improvement where we didn't."
In 2013, Tennessee and the District of Columbia showed across-the-board growth on the test compared to 2011. The U.S. Defense Department schools also saw gains in both grade levels and subjects.
Hawaii has seen a concentrated effort to improve teaching quality. Its scores also increased with the exception of fourth grade reading. In Iowa and Washington, scores increased except in 8th grade math.
Specifically pointing to Tennessee, Hawaii and D.C., Education Secretary Arne Duncan said on a conference call with reporters that many of the changes seen in these states were "very, very difficult and courageous" and appear to have had an impact.
The report card comes as a new era in education unfolds. President George W. Bush's education law, No Child Left Behind, has essentially been dismantled. The law sought to close achievement gaps among racial groups and have every student doing math and reading at grade level by 2014.
Congress failed to update the law before it was due for renewal in 2007, and President Barack Obama allowed states to get waivers from its requirements if they showed they have their own plans to prepare students. A majority of states are rolling out Common Core State Standards with the goal of better preparing students for college or a job.
The states-led standards establish benchmarks for reading and math and replace goals that previously varied widely from state.