The Nation's Report Card: Is the U.S. Failing?

Article excerpt


With all the energy directed to raising academic standards and performance levels in schools throughout the United States, one would expect to be seeing a rising trend line. Given the enormous resources being devoted to educational improvement, positive results should be evident. From former President George Bush's educational gathering of the nation's Governors in 1989 and the subsequent Goals 2000 initiative, to the No Child Left Behind Act inaugurated under the current administration, school reform and improvement have received astonishing levels of attention from every quarter. Local, state, national, public and private groups have weighed in on a great variety of educational issues including recommendations for change from academicians, attorneys, business groups, educators, legislators, parent groups, policymakers, politicians, professional organizations, school boards, state departments of education, students, think tanks, ad infinitum. One would think that after all this multi-year blustering, strong academic results would be at hand. But they are not.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is considered to be the nation's report card and has been conducted for more than three decades as part of a Congressional mandate. NAEP assessments are administered periodically in reading, math, science, writing, history, geography, and other subjects. Responsibility for conducting these assessments falls to the National Center for Education Statistics within the Institute of Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education.

The most recent NAEP results for assessments of 12th grade reading and math are very sobering. They show that reading and math scores are not rising; in fact, they are declining. This article will review the results and discuss some associated issues and other significant trends.


The NAEP is considered a more reliable indicator of student performance than results on various state examinations, since the state exams vary considerably in levels of difficulty. Simply put, children scoring high on some state exams often score poorly on the NAEP, since the NAEP exams are more demanding.

The most recent NAEP results are for assessments conducted during 2005 in reading and math. A representative sample of more than 21,000 high school seniors from 900 schools throughout the United States participated. Student scores are considered Basic, Proficient or Advanced. According to the NAEP report (see p. 4-5), in reading:

* performance of 12th graders declined when compared to results of students in 1992, although there was no significant change since 2002;

* scores for Black students and White students declined when compared to the results of students in 1992; but there was no significant change in the performance gap;

* female students did better than males by a wider margin than in 1992;

* the largest declines were seen among the lower-performing students at the 10th percentile;

* the percentage of students scoring at or above Basic decreased from 80% in 1992 to 73% in 2005;

* the percentage of students scoring at or above Proficient decreased from 40% to 35%;

* the number of White students in the sample decreased from 74% to 67%; the number of Hispanics increased from 7% to 14%; the number of Black students declined from 15% to 13%.

For 2005, the mathematics assessment was based upon a revised framework that did not permit comparisons with earlier years. In math, the following NAEP results were reported (see p. 14 ff.):

* 61 % of students performed at or above the Basic level;

* 23% of students scored at or above Proficient;

* Asian/Pacific Islander students outperformed all other groups * White students, on average, scored 31 points higher than Black students and 31 points higher than Hispanic students;

* generally, male students outperformed female students. …