Despite the positive report, Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Malverne schools,...

Despite the positive report, Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Malverne schools, cautioned: "The fact is that students of color still lag behind those of their white counterparts, no matter what test we use." Credit: Raychel Brightman

American students' reading and math scores have been climbing for more than 50 years, with Black, Hispanic and Asian students showing greater gains than white classmates, according to a report newly published in a Harvard magazine.

The report is based on reviews of more than 7 million tests taken by U.S. students born between 1954 and 2007. The analysis drew on results of five different national and international testing programs, including two administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tracks achievement trends for the U.S. government.

Researchers, whose report is headlined “A Half Century of Student Progress Nationwide,” said their findings contradict numerous studies that have labeled U.S. schools as failing and students as falling behind. The newly released study covers achievement in elementary, middle and high schools from 1971 to 2017, the last year for which comparable data is available.

The report is national in scope, and does not include state or regional breakdowns of achievement. 

Co-authors of the report are Paul E. Peterson, a professor and director of education policy at Harvard University, and M. Danish Shakeel, a professor and director of policy studies at the University of Buckingham in Buckingham, England.

“Results are very different from what a lot of people think, and what I was thinking when I began this research," Peterson said at a prerelease news conference. "The headline results are that student achievement has been steadily rising over the decades, and very steeply so in mathematics, but also in reading to a lesser extent." 

The report appears in the latest edition of Education Next, a scholarly journal published by an institute of the same name and by the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Due to a lack of comparable test data after 2017, Peterson and Shakeel did not address student performance in the years of the COVID-19 pandemic, when they acknowledge that schools were left badly shaken. They concluded, however, that "successes of the past may give educators confidence that today's challenges can be overcome."

Over the five decades examined, the researchers found that achievement rose fastest in math. The rate of improvement for that subject, in statistical terms, was 95% of a standard deviation — in laymen’s terms, equivalent to nearly four years’ worth of learning. Gains in English amounted to 20% of a standard deviation over the same period, just short of a year’s worth of learning.

Shakeel and Peterson speculated that academic trends may have resulted in part from improving environmental conditions for students when their brains were developing, in early childhood or even before they were born. Those conclusions drew on recent studies in neurobiology and human intelligence.

Breakdowns of test scores by race and ethnicity also uncovered some encouraging trends. Peterson and Shakeel reported, for example, that the gap in scores between Black students and white counterparts narrowed to about half its initial size over 50 years. A similar trend was observed for differences between Hispanics and whites. Asian students, who once scored lower than whites, now outperform them, researchers noted. 

Still, gaps do remain in areas such as scores and graduation rates, and many education leaders in New York State continue to voice concerns over the situation. In Nassau County, the latest state data shows that high school graduation rates in 2021 were 97% for Asians and whites, 91% for Blacks and 88% for Hispanics. In Suffolk County, the numbers were 96% for Asians and whites, 86% for Blacks and 82% for Hispanics. 

"The fact is that students of color still lag behind those of their white counterparts, no matter what test we use," said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Malverne schools and a former president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. 

Lewis, referring to the Peterson/Shakeel report, added, "I would hate for this research to lead educators to become overly complacent, and not continue to aggressively address gaps in achievement."

American students' reading and math scores have been climbing for more than 50 years, with Black, Hispanic and Asian students showing greater gains than white classmates, according to a report newly published in a Harvard magazine.

The report is based on reviews of more than 7 million tests taken by U.S. students born between 1954 and 2007. The analysis drew on results of five different national and international testing programs, including two administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which tracks achievement trends for the U.S. government.

Researchers, whose report is headlined “A Half Century of Student Progress Nationwide,” said their findings contradict numerous studies that have labeled U.S. schools as failing and students as falling behind. The newly released study covers achievement in elementary, middle and high schools from 1971 to 2017, the last year for which comparable data is available.

The report is national in scope, and does not include state or regional breakdowns of achievement. 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Academic performance of U.S. students has been rising for a half-century, despite a common misperception that most have fallen behind, researchers say. 
  • Asian, Black and Hispanic students have gained at a faster pace than white classmates, according to those researchers, whose findings appear in a Harvard-based journal. 
  • Many education leaders in New York State and on Long Island note that, despite gains, achievement gaps remain for students of color and need to be addressed.

Co-authors of the report are Paul E. Peterson, a professor and director of education policy at Harvard University, and M. Danish Shakeel, a professor and director of policy studies at the University of Buckingham in Buckingham, England.

“Results are very different from what a lot of people think, and what I was thinking when I began this research," Peterson said at a prerelease news conference. "The headline results are that student achievement has been steadily rising over the decades, and very steeply so in mathematics, but also in reading to a lesser extent." 

The report appears in the latest edition of Education Next, a scholarly journal published by an institute of the same name and by the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Due to a lack of comparable test data after 2017, Peterson and Shakeel did not address student performance in the years of the COVID-19 pandemic, when they acknowledge that schools were left badly shaken. They concluded, however, that "successes of the past may give educators confidence that today's challenges can be overcome."

Over the five decades examined, the researchers found that achievement rose fastest in math. The rate of improvement for that subject, in statistical terms, was 95% of a standard deviation — in laymen’s terms, equivalent to nearly four years’ worth of learning. Gains in English amounted to 20% of a standard deviation over the same period, just short of a year’s worth of learning.

Shakeel and Peterson speculated that academic trends may have resulted in part from improving environmental conditions for students when their brains were developing, in early childhood or even before they were born. Those conclusions drew on recent studies in neurobiology and human intelligence.

Breakdowns of test scores by race and ethnicity also uncovered some encouraging trends. Peterson and Shakeel reported, for example, that the gap in scores between Black students and white counterparts narrowed to about half its initial size over 50 years. A similar trend was observed for differences between Hispanics and whites. Asian students, who once scored lower than whites, now outperform them, researchers noted. 

Still, gaps do remain in areas such as scores and graduation rates, and many education leaders in New York State continue to voice concerns over the situation. In Nassau County, the latest state data shows that high school graduation rates in 2021 were 97% for Asians and whites, 91% for Blacks and 88% for Hispanics. In Suffolk County, the numbers were 96% for Asians and whites, 86% for Blacks and 82% for Hispanics. 

"The fact is that students of color still lag behind those of their white counterparts, no matter what test we use," said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Malverne schools and a former president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. 

Lewis, referring to the Peterson/Shakeel report, added, "I would hate for this research to lead educators to become overly complacent, and not continue to aggressively address gaps in achievement."

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