Skip to Content

Narrowing achievement gaps eclipsed by failing economy

Federal government’s role crucial to stimulating student learning

WASHINGTON - April 28, 2009 -

The National Center for Education Statistics today released its long-term trend assessments in reading and mathematics based on National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) scores. 

The Nation's Report Card: Trends in Academic Progress in Reading and Mathematics 2008 provides results of the NAEP long-term trend assessments in reading and mathematics given to students at ages 9, 13 and 17 during the 2007–08 school year.  Throughout the report, the most recent results are compared to those from its last assessment in 2004 and to the results from the years the reading and mathematics tests were first administered in the early 1970s. 

NAEP is the only national measurement for student achievement progress and closely examines the results by gender and ethnicity, which enables education policymakers with the ability to measure the need for greater focus on closing achievement gaps for all students.    

According to the report, average reading scores increased slightly at all ages since 2004.  Average scores were 12 points higher than in 1971 for 9-year-olds and four points higher for 13-year-olds.  In math, average scores increased for 9- and 13-year-olds since 2004, but did not change significantly for 17-year-olds.  More importantly, average scores were 24 points higher than in 1973 for 9-year-olds and 15 points higher for 13-year-olds.  Disturbingly, the average mathematics score for 17-year-olds was not significantly different compared to the 1973 results. 

This year’s report does show some positive gains in narrowing achievement gaps.  Average reading scores are substantially higher in 2008 than in the 1970s for White, Black, and Hispanic students, but increases during this period were larger for Black students than for White students.  Across all three age groups, increases in mathematics scores from 1973 to 2008 were greater for both Black and Hispanic students than for White students.  

“We are pleased to see some long-term improvements in closing achievement gaps,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.  “But some narrowing over the last four decades just isn’t enough, especially given improvements in practice and technology that have been made over that time period.  In addition, the gains since NCLB has been in effect are generally minimal, and lag behind the gains in the years immediately before the law took effect. We know student achievement gaps persist. 

These gains run a huge risk of backsliding due to our current economic climate, and the many out-of-school factors that affect student success—from poverty to health care, the availability of summer opportunities for students, and the stability of housing—are all problematic for students of all ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds right now.  The last thing we want to see is for scores to slip back to those of the 1970s because all students do not have access to high-quality public schools, especially as we face education funding being slashed from state budgets nationwide.

We need to focus on the whole child – both by transforming our public schools, as well as  through expanded high-quality early childhood education programs, and expanded and improved services in health and dental care, nutrition, housing.  Policymakers and educators at all levels – national , state, and local – must come together to ensure that our children have the tools and resources they need  both in and out of school to succeed.”

Van Roekel concluded by stating, “The developing federal role in education is crucial right now to improve our schools and help prepare students to attain the knowledge and skills they need to participate fully in our democracy and to succeed in this dynamic 21st century world.  NEA proposes that a new balance be created in the partnership among federal, state and local leaders and that we collectively commit to making every public school great by the year 2020.”

For more information on NEA’s Great Public Schools for Every Student by 2020 initiative, please click here.

The full report, The Nation's Report Card: Trends in Academic Progress in Reading and Mathematics 2008, is available here:

# # #

The National Education Association is the nation’s largest professional employee organization, representing 3.2 million elementary and secondary teachers, higher education faculty, education support professionals, school administrators, retired educators and students preparing to become teachers.

CONTACT: Sara Robertson, (202) 822-7823,