The latest Nation's Report Card is painting a dismal picture of math and reading achievement among American fourth and eighth graders despite a few bright spots.
Students in the nation's capital, which faced multiple scandals in its public school system last year, made significant gains in both reading and math this year, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress. There also were major improvements in Mississippi, bucking a national trend that showed America's eighth graders falling behind in math and reading and declines among fourth graders in math.
Nationwide, a little more than a third of eighth graders are proficient in reading and math. About a third of fourth graders are proficient in reading, while more than 40% of fourth graders are proficient in math.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said the overall national results demonstrated a "student achievement crisis" that can't be fixed by pouring more money into the traditional public school system. She renewed her pitch for expanded school choice, including her proposals for federal tax credits for donations made to groups offering scholarships for private schools, apprenticeships, school vouchers and greater reliance on privately run charter schools.
"Our children continue to fall further and further behind their international peers," she said in a speech Wednesday. "If we embrace education freedom, American students can achieve. American students can compete."
In Washington, schools Chancellor Lewis Ferebee credited the improved performance by the city's students to a number of factors, including the 2008 institution of universal free pre-K schooling for 3- and 4-year-olds living in D.C. That first crop of Washington preschoolers to benefit from the program would be in high school now, Ferebee said.
"Many of our students are getting a strong start in their learning," said Ferebee, who also credited Washington's commitment to comparatively high teacher salaries that "allow us to be competitive at a time when there's a nationwide shortage of good teachers."
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The nationwide test is given to a random sampling of students in the fourth and eighth grades every two years.
Students made big gains in math in the 1990s and 2000s but have shown little improvement since then. Reading scores have risen a little since the tests began in 1992.
The decline in both reading and math performance among eighth grade students preparing to enter high school was especially concerning, officials said.
"Eighth grade is a transitional point in preparing students for success in high school, so it is critical that researchers further explore the declines we are seeing here, especially the larger, more widespread declines across states we are seeing in reading," Peggy Carr, associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, told reporters during a conference call.
Both low- and high-achieving eighth graders slipped in reading, but the declines were generally worse for lower-performing students.
Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, said that it's hard to find a coherent story across different state and local school districts, but that he hoped the results would "spur us to do something a little more vigorous."
"We've just absolutely stalled," Willingham said.
One theory is that decreased performance is a residue of economic decline and spending cuts by school districts. Michael Petrilli, president of education reform group the Thomas Fordham Institute, has pointed to data showing that performance has risen and fallen on the test in the past in sync with the economy.
"What we saw is that great calamity had lingering impacts," Petrilli said. He said that could also be why "we'd be seeing particularly disappointing results at the lowest end of the spectrum."
Officials noted gains in Mississippi, where for the first time in the test's history, fourth graders scored above the national average in math and at the national average in reading. The state remained behind national averages in eighth grade but continued to improve in math and held its ground in reading despite nationwide losses.
"Our achievement is at an all-time high in Mississippi," said state Superintendent Carey Wright.
The state has been among a number with a heavy focus on improving early literacy, but Wright said Mississippi also has devoted resources to helping teachers improve math instruction after it adopted new standards.
"When you improve kids' reading ability, it's not surprising that kids' math ability falls in line," Wright said.
The nation's large-city public schools, which educate more poor students and English language learners, also saw good news. Big-city schools still performed below the nation as a whole but further narrowed the gap.
In the last 20 years, the achievement gap between big-city schools and the nation has narrowed by about 50% in reading and math, the Council of the Great City Schools said. The schools are now about five to eight points below national averages on NAEP's 500-point scale.
"We still have more to do, but the era of poor performance in our nation's urban public-school systems has ended, and it has been replaced by results, accountability and promise," the council's executive director, Michael Casserly, said in a news release.
The results are a particularly welcome victory for Washington, D.C., public schools, which endured a string of high-profile scandals at the high school level last year. Officials at multiple Washington high schools were found to have been systematically altering attendance records in order to maintain high graduation rates by graduating chronically truant students. And Ferebee's predecessor, Antwan Wilson, was forced to resign after revelations that he skirted his own rules to place his daughter in a prestigious high school while skipping a 600-student waiting list.