Video: U.S. fourth-graders’ math scores stall

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    >>> is negative.

    >>> today a highly anticipated national report card is out on just how this nation's elementary school students are doing in math. and it shows a big majority of kids are just not making the grade. rehema ellis covers education for us and has a look at what these numbers mean.

    >> reporter: the results are disappointing. 300,000 students took the test known as the national assessment of educational progress , the nation's report card .

    >> 7.8 --

    >> reporter: it showed eighth grade math scores increased but only marginally. fourth-graders made no progress at all. it means 61% of fourth graders are not proficient in math, 66% of eighth graders aren't either.

    >> i think the fourth grade achievement is stalled and we'll need to wait and see when we have the next assessment whether or not it's really plateaued.

    >> reporter: equally disturbing, some experts say, results in the test show no change in achievement gaps. white fourth graders on average scored 248 on a 500-point scale. hispanics scored 227. and black students scored 222. virtually identical outcomes from the last time the tests were given in 2007 . these tests were taken before the obama administration infused an unprecedented 100 billion stimulus dollars into the nation's schools. that's on top of the billions poured into the no child left behind program during the bush administration . now officials say today's results are yet another reason more action is needed.

    >> because they got a great, great education --

    >> reporter: secretary of education arnie duncan stressed there are some pockets of excellence but they tend to be the exception, not the norm.

    >> i feel a real sense of urgency. we have to get a lot better as a country. we have to educate our way to a better economy.

    >> reporter: others agree, saying low scores will result in low economic growth.

    >> hold on to the rail.

    >> parents should be outraged. taxpayers should also be because we've spent an enormous amount more on our schools and our scores have been flat.

    >> reporter: another national report card showing america's schools have a lot more work to do. rehema ellis, nbc news, new york.

updated 10/14/2009 3:10:06 PM ET 2009-10-14T19:10:06

After two decades of slow and steady progress in math, U.S. fourth-graders made no improvement over 2007, according to nationwide test scores released Wednesday.

Eighth-graders made headway, posting gains for yet another year.

It is impossible to tell from a single test whether trends are changing. Since 1990, test scores have been rising in both grades, though fourth-graders generally have made bigger gains.

Even so, officials said they were troubled by the lack of progress. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the results are a call to action.

"None of us should be satisfied," Duncan said in a statement. "We need reforms that will accelerate student achievement. Our students need to graduate high school ready to succeed in college and the workplace."

The results are from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, a series of federally funded achievement tests often referred to as the nation's report card. Students are tested in nine subjects, but they are tested most often in math and reading. Generally, they have been making more progress in math than in reading.

This year's math tests were given to 168,800 fourth-graders and 161,700 eighth-graders in public and private schools in every state.

Proficiency still lags
On a 500-point scale, fourth-graders on average scored 240, unchanged from two years ago. Eighth-graders on average scored 283, up from 281 two years ago.

Also unchanged were children's achievement levels; only 39 percent of fourth-graders and 34 percent of eighth-graders performed at the proficient level, meaning they show the knowledge and skills they should have at that grade level. Eighth-grade scores were up from 32 percent, but that was not statistically different.

Tom Loveless, an education expert at the Brookings Institution think tank, said the results really weren't much different from the 2007 results. It would take another four to six years to see if fourth-grade progress has truly stalled, he said.

"Each of these is kind of like a public opinion poll; it's an estimate," Loveless said. "I think people rush to take each release of test scores far too seriously and try to explain every little wiggle in the data."

Loveless said it is impossible to explain exactly why fourth-grade scores did not budge. "Scientifically, you cannot explain in education why a phenomenon did not happen," he said.

According to the results:

  • Just four states and the District of Columbia managed to show improvement in both fourth and eighth grades. The states are Nevada, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. The District of Columbia was the only place where kids' scores improved across every group by race, gender and family income.
  • Three states saw improvement in fourth grade only; they are Colorado, Kentucky and Maryland. Ten states saw improvement in eighth grade only; they are Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, South Dakota, Utah and Washington.
  • In four states, scores actually dropped among fourth-graders; they are Delaware, Indiana, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Achievement gap persists
In addition, there was no progress from 2007 to 2009 in closing the gap between minority and white students in either grade, though the gap has narrowed somewhat since the 1990s. Black and Hispanic students did make gains at eighth grade, but the gap persisted because white students improved, too.

Experts say this divide, considered one of the toughest challenges in education, is driven by deeply rooted factors. More minority children live in poverty, which is linked to an array of problems that interfere with learning.

Another reason the gap has persisted is demographics — white children made up about 75 percent of students tested in the 1990s but today make up less than 60 percent.

Private school students continue to outperform those in public schools, according to the scores. Private school math scores were 7 points better in fourth grade and 14 points better in eighth grade.

Internationally, U.S. fourth- and eighth-graders have kept improving in math and have gained on some of their toughest competitors. But the most recent tests were done in 2007 and won't be administered again until 2011.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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