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Reading and Science Test Scores Level Off; Racial Gap Increases

By Martha Groves
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- Despite years of intensive efforts to improve the performance of American students, scores in reading and science stagnated in the 1990s and the achievement gap between blacks and whites widened, according to the latest measure of long-term trends in the nation’s classrooms.

Over the 30 years of the federal assessment, the only substantial gains among students overall were in mathematics.

The sobering results, released Thursday by the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics, offer further evidence that solutions to educational problems are elusive.

In a presidential election year when both major parties have embraced public schools as a top priority, the results provided fodder for representatives from across the political and social spectrum.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley sounded a rare note of optimism. At a Washington news conference, he said he viewed the results as encouraging, given how much more diverse the nation’s student population is than 30 years ago, when the long-term assessments began.

“In several categories, blacks and Hispanics are scoring better than ever, and that’s good news,” he said. “White kids are doing better, too. That, of course, impacts the (achievement) gap.

“We have a persistent gap,” he acknowledged, “and we must look to close it, while lifting achievement for all.”

Among Latino students, average scores are somewhat higher than those for blacks. The achievement gap between whites and Latinos has narrowed over the 30 years, in some cases dramatically, but in the last decade that gap has fluctuated.

The tests are part of the congressionally mandated National Assessment of Educational Progress. The data come from tests in reading, mathematics and science given to 9-, 13- and 17-year-old students since the early 1970s. Unlike other NAEP results for individual subjects, the long-term trend data are not broken out by state.