U.S. elementary and middle school students have sharpened their reading and math skills since the 1970s, while 17-year-olds stagnated, federal tests show.
Almost half of 9-year-olds knew basic arithmetic last year, up from 20 percent in 1978, according to a U.S. Education Department report. Yet, only 7 percent of 17-year-olds solved routine problems involving fractions, percents, algebra, exponents and square roots, the same level as 34 years earlier.
The results of the test, called the Nation’s Report Card, follow decades of government efforts to improve achievement in education led by presidents from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama. Congress is also debating how to rewrite No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush’s 2002 law focusing on testing to hold schools accountable for their results.
“The great value of this report is in allowing us to see both the progress and the problems,” said Brent Houston, principal at Shawnee Middle School in Oklahoma and a member of the board overseeing the test.
The 2012 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, as the test is formally known, measured the performance of a nationally representative sample of more than 50,000 fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders in public and private schools against their predecessors in the 1970s, when the tests were first given.
Thirteen-year-olds were the only age group to show a significant gain since 2008, the last time the government compared performance to the 1970s. On a zero to 500-point scale, their average math scores rose to 285 in 2012 from 281 in 2008 and 266 in 1973. Reading rose to 263 last year from 260 in 2008 and 255 in 1971.
Fifteen percent of 13-year-olds could understand and summarize complicated literary and informational passages, up from 13 percent in 2008 and 10 percent in 1971. Only 6 percent of 17-year-olds could show that they could synthesize and learn from specialized reading materials -- about the same as in the 1970s.
Catholic school students performed better than those in public classrooms. Private school participation wasn’t high enough to break out results.
Black and Hispanic students made larger gains than white students since the 1970s. While they still lagged whites, that “achievement gap” narrowed, according to the study.
In math, black and Hispanic 9-year-olds are performing about as well as their 13-year-old counterparts did in the early 1970s, according to Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit advocacy and research group.
The lagging achievement of disadvantaged minorities had been a major focus of federal policy, including No Child Left Behind.
“There are considerable bright spots, including remarkable improvement among black and Hispanic students and great strides for girls in mathematics,” David P. Driscoll, the former Massachusetts education commissioner who chairs the group overseeing the federal test, said in a statement.