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U.S. Schoolchildren Don’t Make Grade on Reading, Math Tests

Only three in 10 U.S. schoolchildren make the grade in reading, the U.S. Education Department said today. Four in 10 passed muster in math.

About half of fourth-graders knew that a right triangle and a rectangle each had at least one right angle, according to a federal test, known as the Nation’s Report Card. On the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which measures fourth- and eighth-grade knowledge, scores rose from 2009 except in reading at the lower level. The score for younger readers was unchanged.

President Barack Obama and Congress are seeking to change No Child Left Behind, the nation’s main education law, which requires that all students pass state tests in math and reading by 2014 or risk losing federal money.

David P. Driscoll, chairman of the board that oversees the federal test, called the fourth-grade reading results “deeply disappointing” and voiced concern about the modest long-term improvement in literacy. At the same time, two decades of math gains were “impressive and consistent,” he said.

Almost all states give reading and math tests that are easier to pass than the federal exams, the Education Department said in an August study. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said No Child Left Behind encourages states to water down their own testing to qualify for federal money.

“It’s clear that achievement is not accelerating fast enough for our nation’s children to compete in the knowledge economy of the 21st century,” Duncan said today in a statement. Following “significant” 1990s gains, particularly in math, “the 2011 results continue a pattern of modest progress.”

Achievement Gap

On the latest exams, Black, Hispanic and low-income children continue to have lower scores than white kids. Closing that “achievement gap” is also major of focus of No Child Left Behind. Asian-American students performed better than whites.

A nationally representative sample of more than 200,000 fourth-graders and about 170,000 eighth-graders took the exams.

On a zero-to-500 point scale, the average fourth-grade math score on the federal report card was 241, one point higher than in 2009. The average eighth-grade score was 284, up from 283.

In both cases, students performed at the “basic” level. That means that fourth-graders likely could compute the difference of two four-digit numbers, while they probably would have trouble putting in order fractions with unlike denominators.

‘Basic’ Level

The average fourth-grade reading score was 221, unchanged from 2009. Eighth-graders’ results rose 1 point to 265.

The reading score also clocked in at “basic.” With a score of 221, a fourth-grader probably would be able to describe a character trait in a reading passage and would struggle to recognize the main problem a character faces.

Two decades of rising math scores may reflect the success of instruction because students learn the subject “almost exclusively” in school, Driscoll, former commissioner of education in Massachusetts, said in a statement. Children gain literacy skills at home and in other academic subjects, he said.

In fourth grade, 40 percent of students this year were considered proficient or better in math, compared with 13 percent in 1990.

“The average fourth-grader today may be performing about as well in math as the average sixth-grader did two decades ago,” Driscoll said. In eighth grade, the figure jumped to 34 percent from 15 percent.

By contrast, the proportion of students considered proficient in reading -- 34 percent -- was only 5 percentage points higher than a generation ago.

The gains in math have been slower in recent years, Driscoll said.

“We must now find a way to regain the momentum in math and accelerate student progress in both subjects,” he said.

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