• Joanne Jacobs

50 years of progress: Students are learning more



Reading and math scores have increased significantly in the last 50 years -- and achievement gaps by race and family income have narrowed -- write M. Danish Shakeel and Paul E. Peterson in Education Next.


They crunched a lot of numbers to reach their conclusions.


Across 7 million tests taken by U.S. students born between 1954 and 2007, math scores have grown by 95 percent of a standard deviation, or nearly four years’ worth of learning. Reading scores have grown by 20 percent of a standard deviation per decade during that time, nearly one year’s worth of learning.
. . . Black, Hispanic, and Asian students are improving far more quickly than their white classmates in elementary, middle, and high school. In elementary school, for example, reading scores for white students have grown by 9 percent of a standard deviation each decade, compared to 28 percent for Asian students, 19 percent for Black students, and 13 percent for Hispanic students. Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds also are progressing more quickly than their more advantaged peers in elementary and middle school. And for the most part, growth rates have remained steady throughout the past five decades.

Math scores increased more than reading, and younger students made more progress than older students, their analysis found. Why did math improve so much?


They point to a 2015 meta-analysis of IQ research that distinguished between "crystallized knowledge, or the ability to synthesize and interpret observed relationships in the environment, which is rooted in facts, knowledge, and skills that can be recalled as needed" and "fluid reasoning, or the ability to analyze abstract relationships, which is associated with recognizing patterns and applying logic to novel situations." Both are increasing, but fluid reasoning, critical to math, has been growing faster.


"If students’ performance on math tests depends more on fluid reasoning than crystallized knowledge, then the greater progress in math than reading may be due to environmental conditions," write Shakeel and Peterson. "Over the past 100 years, mothers and babies from all social backgrounds across the world have enjoyed increasingly higher quality nutrition and less exposure to contagious diseases and other environmental risks."


After the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, reading scores grew faster and math scores grew slower, Shakeel and Peterson found. They speculate that improvements in nutrition, health and pollution exposure leveled off. But why did reading scores climb more quickly? They don't know.


Progress is possible, writes Martin West. We have "good evidence that reform measures such as school desegregation and test-based accountability helped achievement grow and move closer to racial and ethnic parity" over the last 50 years, but there is "no guarantee that the upward trends" will continue.

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