American students scored higher than ever on a national math test last year, but overall gains were slight, the federal government reported Thursday.
Reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress generally improved.
Students in Nebraska and Iowa public schools beat or tied the national average on both tests in both fourth and eighth grades.
“What I see is us really maintaining and improving scores,” said Valorie Foy, Nebraska’s state director of assessment.
Nationally, the overall gains from 2011 were piddling, nearly a wash.
For instance, math scores increased one point on a 500-point scale.
About one in four of the nation’s eighth-graders lacked even partial mastery of math skills. Almost a third of fourth-graders couldn’t read at a basic level.
Achievement gaps between racial and ethnic groups persisted, with one state showing success in narrowing a black-white gap — Maine in fourth-grade math.
Nebraska’s white-black achievement gaps in math remained among the widest in the nation, ranking last in fourth grade and second from the bottom in eighth grade.
The state’s white-Hispanic gap for fourth-grade math was also wider than the nation’s average.
Foy said some Nebraska racial groups made gains, but comparable gains by white students kept gaps from narrowing.
The tests are administered every two years by the National Center for Education Statistics within the U.S. Department of Education.
The government has tested U.S. kids in a variety of subjects since 1969 to gauge progress, reporting results as the Nation’s Report Card. It is the nation’s only state-by-state comparison of student progress.
About 377,000 fourth-graders and 342,000 eighth-graders were tested in the latest round.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted that nationally, Hispanic achievement is up. He called it “very troubling” that achievement gaps between white and black students, and white and Hispanic students, failed to narrow.
Even with the gains, he said, U.S. students are “well behind” their peers in top-performing nations.
In Iowa, where stagnant test scores in previous years have fueled education reform efforts, the results offer reason for optimism.
Iowa students made “statistically significant” gains since 2011 in fourth-grade math and reading and eighth-grade reading, according to the government report.
Iowa officials pointed out, however, that white students, who make up 81 percent of Iowa’s student population, are behind their white peers nationally across all tested grade levels and subject areas. Nebraska’s white students scored below the national average in eighth-grade math and fourth-grade reading.
In fourth-grade reading in Iowa, the gap in achievement between students with and without disabilities is the worst in the nation.
The gap in achievement has narrowed for Iowa’s Hispanic students across the board. Hispanic students also outperformed their national counterparts in fourth-grade reading and math.
The gap in achievement for Iowa students who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals has widened in every area except eighth-grade math.
“We see some bright spots in today’s results, but they largely underscore the need to continue pushing forward with our education priorities,” Iowa Department of Education Director Brad Buck said.
Nebraska fourth-graders were a bright spot for the state, making math gains significant enough to mean real progress for kids since 2011.
Although Nebraska’s eighth-grade scores for math and reading went up as well, the gains were not considered statistically significant. The fourth-grade reading score was unchanged.
The government breaks the scores down further as to what percentage of students scored either proficient or advanced on the tests. Students performing at or above proficient demonstrate solid academic performance and competency over challenging subject matter.
Iowa and Nebraska ranked in the top half of states for how many students scored in those ranges in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and fourth-grade math. In eighth-grade math the states tied for 29th.