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READING SCORES FLAT FOR SEVENTEEN-YEAR-OLDS SINCE 1971: Long-Term Trend Assessment Shows Large Gains for Nine-Year-Olds Over Same Time Period

"The results from the newest Report Card are in and the news is outstanding," said U.S. Department of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.

Between 1971 and 2004, there was no measurable change in average reading scores for seventeen-year-olds, according to the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) long-term-trend assessment in reading, also known as the Nation’s Report Card. Average scores for thirteen-year-olds showed no measurable difference from 1999, but were higher than scores in 1971 and 1975. Among nine-year-olds, average reading scores are higher than any previous assessment year, with an increase of seven points since 1999.

The dramatic improvement among nine-year-old students was good news to supporters of the No Child Left Behind Act, who were quick to give NCLB credit for the increases. “The results from the newest Report Card are in and the news is outstanding,” said U.S. Department of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. “Three years ago, our country made a commitment that no child would be left behind. Today’s Report Card is proof that No Child Left Behind is working-it is helping to raise the achievement gap of young students of every race and from every type of family background. And the achievement gap that has persisted for decades in the younger years between minorities and whites has shrunk to its smallest size in history.”

Some experts disagree with that assessment. According to a Washington Post article, Darvin Winick, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, “urged caution about attributing progress to No Child Left Behind and said the narrowing of the achievement gap can be traced back to at least 1999, before President Bush took office.” Several other analysts have noted that the NAEP study was conducted during the 2003-2004 school year, in the early stages of the implementation of NCLB.

While the average scores for thirteen-year-olds showed no measurable difference from 1999, overall gains in reading scores were evident among higher-performing students-those scoring at the seventy-fifth and ninetieth percentiles-between 1971 and 2004. However, seventeen-year-olds showed no measurable improvement in reading scores at any of the selected percentiles. In fact, reading performance at or above level 300 (out of a 500 point scale)-which represents understanding complicated information-has declined by three percentage points since 1994.

Students who took the reading assessment were also asked how often they read for fun. Between 1984 and 2004, there was no measurable change in the percentage of nine-year-olds who read for fun. However, at ages thirteen and seventeen, the percentage of students who said they read for fun almost every day was lower in 2004 than in 1984. This trend was accompanied by an increase over the same twenty-year period in the percentage who said they never or hardly ever read for fun. At all three ages, the students who indicated that they read for fun almost every day had higher average reading scores in 2004 than those who never or hardly ever read for fun.

The report also covered trends in mathematics. While the average math scores increased by nine points from 1999 to 2004 among nine-year-olds and five points among thirteen-year-olds, the average score for seventeen-year-olds was not measurably different from 1973 to 1999.

While Secretary Spellings was happy with the overall results, she indicated that much more progress needed to be made. “We are at the beginning of the journey and certainly have room for improvement, particularly at the high school level,” she said. “We must support older students with the same can-do attitude that helped their younger brothers and sisters.”

NAEP 2004 Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Student Performance in Reading and Mathematics is available at

Secretary Spellings’s complete statement is available at

School Achievement Gap Is Narrowing” is available at

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