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  • Writer's pictureJoanne 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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Bruce Smith
Bruce Smith
Aug 11, 2022

Three points are important here: (1) recent evidence, from the last ten years, has shown a reversal of previous gains (the Every Student Succeeds Act, like the Common Core, has failed to achieve its intended effects); (2) the gains in early grades are meaningless if students at the end of high school have seen those gains vanish, which has been a consistent data point for a long time now; (3, most important of all) evidence from the OECD's Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies indicates that American young adults, aged 16-24, who (unlike 12th-graders) are therefore usually finished with their formal education, are, in comparison with their peers in 20 other developed nations, mediocre in reading, and rank…


Aug 10, 2022

Granted this is only anecdotal evidence, but it tends to disprove the increase in achievement. My stepmother and I had the same text book in HS for 4th year Latin (Virgil's Aeneid) about 40 years apart and different schools in Louisville, KY.

Introductory Analytical chemistry (roughly sophomore year in college) Same text different editions (est. 1974 and 1988) I was able to compare the same section since I had copied it, and then had to replace the book due to my boss losing it) I was shocked at how much simpler the text was with more graphics had been added.

While I don't have the details, I noticed a similar effect in theology.

Perhaps the differences among the groups are…


Aug 10, 2022

The actual achievement loss since the 70's is due to re-norm of scores (SAT has been re-normed/adjusted at least twice and possibly three times).

Student achievement has never been lower, if compared to exams like PISA and TIMSS/TIMSS-R

If you want proof look at the youtube story by John Stossel "Stupid in America"...pretty much dispels the notion that achievement is going up...

A recent statistic shows that only 1 in 20 african american males are handling math at grade level, and a recent study also shows that due to COVID-19, all the gains students have made in the last 10-15 years have vanished...

I suspect this story is a first class lie, folks


Aug 10, 2022

Reading the article, they ask the question, why is PISA--and only PISA--an outlier, showing declines in performance, when every other test is sunny?

They propose it is because it is because PISA is more text-heavy than the other tests, and is testing reading as much as math.

I propose a different reason: NAEP and TIMSS are both US tests, written in the US. PISA is an international exam written by the OECD. There is great pressure across the US towards grade inflation and dumbing down tests. Perhaps, PISA is a less prone to succumb to that pressure.


Aug 10, 2022

This study doesn't jibe with the many, many news stories about the reading and math ability of students. A quick google finds this:

Which says, "Apparently in Detroit public schools, 93% of students are not proficient in reading and 96% are below standards in math. This isn’t too far off from the national average since the last book most adults read was the Hunger Games or Twilight and no one can figure out a tip percentage without a calculator."

A few minutes with google will find a million of these. Are they all wrong, or is this analysis using some tricks to get these conclusions? For example, tests are re-normalized over time, was this taken into account?

Color me…

Aug 10, 2022
Replying to

Rather famously, the president of the Detroit School Board, Otis Mathis, who served for years, was functionally illiterate.

-- Ann in L.A.

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