The scores, collected regularly since the 1970s from federal tests administered to public and private school students age 9, 13, and 17, paint a picture of steady student achievement that contradicts the popular notion that U.S. educational progress has stalled.
"When you break out the data over the long term and ask who is improving, the answer is ... everyone," said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a nonprofit organization that works to close the achievement gap between poor and privileged children. "And the good news, given where they started, is that black and Latino children have racked up some of the biggest gains of all."
The data, part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress long-term trend study, come from tests given every four years in math and reading. The most recent results, from 2012, show that 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds did better in both math and reading than students who took the first reading test in 1971 and the first math test in 1973.
Although the younger test-takers made significant progress, scores of 17-year-olds remained relatively flat. But 7-year-olds who struggle the most - those in the bottom percentiles - did show gains in 2012 compared with 40 years ago.
The trend lines show jagged progress over time. But for 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds in math and reading, and 17-year-olds in reading, there has been a steady climb in scores since 2004, when No Child Left Behind, the main federal K-12 education law, began taking effect.
No Child Left Behind required school systems to publicly report test scores for the first time, including information about how minorities, English-language learners and special-education students were performing. Observers say that transparency laid bare racial disparities and put pressure on school districts to improve.
Efforts in Congress to update the law have stalled, with Democrats arguing federal oversight of public education should continue and Republicans saying the federal role should shrink.
Data released Thursday show that blacks and Hispanics at all age levels made more significant progress than white students in their scores since the 1970s, narrowing the achievement gap. In some cases, such as reading scores for 9-year-olds, the black-white gap was nearly cut in half. Only the white-Hispanic gap among 9-year-olds in math has not changed since the 1970s.
In addition to narrowing the gap with white students, blacks and Hispanics performed better in 2012 in reading and math when compared with the same racial groups in the 1970s.
Despite progress, stubborn differences between racial groups remain, Haycock said.
"If we have a crisis in American education, it is this: that we aren't yet moving fast enough to educate the 'minorities' who will soon comprise a 'new majority' of our children nearly as well as we educate the old majority," she said. "At best, students of color are just now performing at the level of white students a generation ago."
The data released Thursday also show the gender gap getting slimmer in math and reading. In the 1970s, boys scored higher than girls in math, while girls outperformed boys in reading. By 2012, the gap in math had been erased for girls and boys at ages 9 and 13, and it was narrowed to just four points among 17 year-olds. In reading, 9-year-old boys shrank the gap with girls from 13 points to five points. But the gender gap in reading did not budge for 13-year-olds and 17-year-olds.
At all ages, students who said they regularly read for fun outside of school scored higher than those who reported reading for fun a few times a year or less.
The data illustrate dramatic demographic changes among American students over the past four decades, with a surge in the proportion of Hispanic students and a drop in the percentage of whites.
Another significant change is that 13 year olds are much more likely to be in 7th grade or lower instead of eighth grade, where the vast majority were in 1978.
Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, suggested that changes in state policies regarding the age for kindergarten enrollment and mandatory grade retention could be factors behind the migration of older children to lower grades. He also pointed to an increasing number of parents who are intentionally delaying the start of school for children -- a practice known as "redshirting" -- because they believe it will give their children an advantage over others.
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