National Report Card Shows Only a Third of Country’s Fourth- and Eighth-Graders Proficient in Reading and Math

In a situation that calls into question the United States’ ability to meet its ambitious college completion goals, a national “report card” released Tuesday shows that only about one-third of the country’s fourth- and eighth-graders were proficient in 2011 in reading and math.

The numbers were even more dire for African-American and Hispanic students. Among those groups, the proficiency rates ranged from 24 percent to as low as 13 percent.

Such are the findings of The Nation’s Report Card, which are based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, an ongoing project of the National Center for Education Statistics.

Though the report card doesn’t frame the findings based on what they mean for the future of higher education in the United States, the report card provides a snapshot of the current levels of proficiency for students who will represent the Class of 2015 and the Class of 2019.

Experts say the lackluster proficiency results among these groups show that serious obstacles lie in the path of the Obama administration’s “2020 goal” to restore the United States to its former prominence as the nation with the highest proportion of college degree holders in the world.

“You won’t reach a college completion goal with 80 percent of students not proficient,” said John Michael Lee Jr., policy director at the College Board’s Advocacy & Policy Center.

“You’re not going to reach your STEM goals if they’re not proficient in math. You’re not going to reach any of your national goals that way.”

Though Lee hadn’t personally reviewed the latest NAEP results, he based his comments on the fact that the latest numbers were similar to what they’ve been in the past.

The latest figures from the 2011 nation’s report card show that:

n  Only 17 percent and 18 percent of Black and Hispanic fourth-graders, respectively, were proficient or better in reading, compared with 44 percent of White fourth-graders.

n  Similarly, only 15 percent and 19 percent of Black and Hispanic eighth-graders, respectively, were proficient in reading, compared with 43 percent of White students.

n  Only 17 percent and 24 percent of Black and Hispanic fourth-graders were proficient in math, compared with 52 percent of White students.

n  Only 13 percent and 20 percent of Black and Hispanic eighth-graders were proficient in math, compared with 44 percent of White students.

The numbers released Tuesday reflect little change from 2009, the last comparative year.

Nationally, 34 percent of all fourth-graders were proficient in reading in 2011, up slightly from 33 percent in 2009. Similarly, 34 percent of eighth-graders were proficient in reading in 2011, up from 32 percent in 2009.

In math, 40 percent of the nation’s fourth-graders were proficient in math, up from 39 percent in 2009. Among eighth-graders, 35 percent were proficient in math, compared with 34 percent in 2009.

Dr. David Driscoll, former commissioner of education in Massachusetts and chairman of the executive committee of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the NAEP, also sounded alarms about what the NAEP results mean for higher education.

“Fifty percent of Black eighth-graders and 40 percent of Hispanic eighth-graders are below basic achievement level in math,” Driscoll said Tuesday in a web conference with reporters. “This means they still have difficulty doing basic arithmetic. Students doing math at that level will have trouble doing algebra they need to be able to do in college.”

Asian students outscored all racial and ethnic groups, although a number of Asian academics in the United States said recently that the high performance of some Asian students masked the underperformance of various Asian subgroups. 

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the 2011 increases part of a “pattern of modest progress” that followed more significant gains in the 1990s.

“The modest increases in NAEP scores are reason for concern as much as optimism,” Duncan said in his statement. “While student achievement is up since 2009 in both grades in mathematics and in eighth-grade reading, it’s clear that achievement is not accelerating fast enough for our nation’s children to compete in the knowledge economy of the 21st century.”

Duncan’s statement also veered into the political, specifically, the issue of teacher jobs. He pointed out that $30 billion in the proposed, but stalled, American Jobs Act would be devoted to “keep teachers in the classroom and off the unemployment line.”

Another $30 billion, the education secretary said, would be used to repair and modernize schools in order to create “21st century learning environments in America’s antiquated school buildings.”

Duncan also touted the fact that the Obama administration offers flexibility in the form of waivers from No Child Left Behind.

Various members of the National Governing Assessment Board, which oversees the NAEP, offered a variety of insights into and solutions the problems revealed in The Nation’s Report Card.

Board member Doris Hicks, principal and CEO of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology in New Orleans, spoke of various efforts her school makes in order to make reading more fun and exciting for its students. These efforts include “Jazzed Up Reading” where a jazz band performs and students make commitments to increase their reading levels. She also encouraged more parents to read to their children at home.

For Lee, of the College Board, the NAEP results point to a need for greater emphasis in providing a quality education at the pre-K level.

Citing research that shows minority students with access to quality pre-K instruction tend to do better than their peers without such instruction, Lee said the K-12 system is not good at catching students up.

“It’s a challenge once a student is behind as to how do you ensure they’re able to catch up,” Lee said, citing additional research that shows catch-up becomes more difficult with time. “That’s something I don’t think we’ve figured out how to do.”