Reports of significant gains in reading and math among the nation’s youngest test takers have set politicians and education interests scrambling to take credit.

The scramble slowed hardly at all on the realization that middle-school students showed only modest gains and that high-school students showed almost no progress, with some of the older groups actually showing declines, according to an analysis of federal test results released by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) July 14.

The test, known as the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), or the Nation’s Report Card, is widely regarded as the best indicator of long-term academic trends. The results, which measure academic scores across a span of three decades, showed that in 2004 nine-year-olds tested higher in reading and math than in any previous year of the assessment. The prognosis was especially bright for minority students who, over the last four years, have made significant strides to close the achievement gap that persists between them and their white counterparts, the study found.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and other Bush administration officials were quick to point to the results as proof that the three-year-old No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is working, but critics urged caution.

There is little proof, the critics contend, that the improvements are a direct result of NCLB. Some advocates suggested the recent explosion of student assessment software, online professional development resources and other technology tools in schools also likely played a role. Still others said the results for nine-year-olds are good, but could be much better if the federal government would pony up money sufficient to fully meet the law’s demands.

“[The] Report Card is proof that No Child Left Behind is working–it is helping to raise the achievement of young students of every race and from every type of family background,” said Spellings in a statement following the official release of the results. “And the achievement gap that has persisted for decades in the younger years between minorities and whites has shrunk to its smallest size in history.”

The long-term-trends test is given every few years to students ages 9, 13, and 17. The most recent findings, collected during the 2003-04 school year, were taken from a sample of 28,000 public and private school students in all 50 states, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the federal agency that published the report.

On average, younger black students’ reading scores shot up 14 points from 186 to 200 based on a 500-point scale between 1999 and 2004, the study found. Hispanic nine-year-olds improved their reading scores by 12 percentage points, from 193 to 205, compared with an increase of just five points for white students. Similar gains were made in math, where the achievement gap between white and Hispanic learners was found to have narrowed from 26 points in 1999 to 18 points in 2004, researchers said.

For black students, the increase in reading scores continued into the middle grades, with 13-year-old African-Americans posting a modest six-point increase during the same time period. Hispanic students in the same category, however, showed a two-point decrease in scores during that time, while white students decreased by one percentage point, the study found. In high school, the 17-year-old sample showed no increase in reading scores at all, with white and black students scoring the same in 2004 as they did in 1999. Hispanic high schoolers, meanwhile, showed a seven-point decrease, from 271 points in 1999 to 264 in 2004, the study found.

“I am pleased with [the] results, but in no way completely satisfied,” said Spellings, who, along with President Bush, has been actively campaigning to push NCLB-type reforms into America’s high schools. “We are at the beginning of the journey and certainly have room for improvement, particularly at the high school level,” she added. “We must support older students with the same can-do attitude that helped their younger brothers and sisters.”

NCLB is important, said education advocates, but it’s not the only factor driving change in schools.

Leslie Conery, deputy chief executive officer for the International Society for Technology in Education, said that improved professional development and technology within the classroom also likely contributed to the improved test results.

“If you put powerful tools in the hands of teachers, powerful results will occur,” Conery said.

But whether NCLB is itself driving change, or contributing to the kinds of innovations that do, critics continue to question whether the law–at least in its current form–is the answer.

“For years in this country we accepted mediocrity and failure from students and finally we said, ‘enough–we can and must do better,’ said Rep. George Miller, D-Caif. “The No Child Left Behind Act has brought substantial changes, which haven’t been easy but which, we now see, have spurred real progress … we must stay with our commitment to the law and to our schools to continue that progress until all students are proficient at reading and math.”

Miller, the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and a co-author of NCLB, said he hopes the results will encourage the Bush administration to provide full funding for the law.

“Now that you can see that progress is being made, will you stop under-funding this law and put your full weight behind this effort?” he asked. “Imagine what these scores would be if you had not shortchanged schools by $40 billion over the last several years. Imagine what these scores would be if you had implemented the law in a timely and clear manner.”

Daniel Kaufman, spokesperson for the National Education Association–the 2.7 million-member teachers union, which recently sued the administration for failing to adequately fund the law–said that the NAEP results are good news, but stopped short of giving credit to NCLB.

Just three years into NCLB’s existence, it’s “very premature to make claims that the law is having an impact one way or another,” Kaufman said. “When you have a big focus on standardized testing, as we do now, you can see an initial jump in scores, but sometimes that will level out after a few years.”

To sustain these gains and drive improvements at the higher grades, he said, teachers and schools need more support from the federal government.

“We need to see continued funding in interventions to make a difference,” he said. “Let’s pat ourselves on the back now, but make sure educators and policy makers do their part–make sure they have resources they need.” In regards to student achievement, he cautioned, “we’re likely to see backsliding,” if the demands on teachers continue and the money eventually runs out.

“These important gains are the product of years of emphasis on reading and math using research-based instruction,” explained Antonia Cortese, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teacher union, “as well as the result of a sharpened focus on high standards as the engine behind student progress.”

She added: “It is clear that if we want to continue these gains, we have to get NCLB right.”

Spellings agreed. There is a lot of work still to be done, she said.

“Changing the direction of America’s schools is like turning the Queen Mary, a large ship whose captain can’t change course on a dime,” she explained in a statement about the results. “The goal requires a lot of time and effort, but we are beginning to turn our own Queen Mary around. I know we can continue to do it together–teachers, principals, parents–so that all children receive the quality education a nation such as ours is capable of providing.”

Contributing Editor Howard Kussoy contributed to this report


American Federation of Teachers

International Society for Technology in Education

National Center for Education Statistics

National Education Association

U.S. Department of Education