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US students score sweeping gains on tests

Elementary and middle-school students are making significant improvements in math skills, while their gains in reading are more modest, according to national test results.

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American students – black, white, Hispanic, rich, poor, male, and female – are improving in math and reading, especially those at the elementary level, where most of education reform has focused.

Those are the modest but positive results from Tuesday's release of the most influential test in US education, the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Fourth-graders are reading at higher levels than in all previous assessments, and most racial/ethnic groups are showing improvement. The achievement gap between black and white students is still large, at 27 points, but has never been lower.

Gains are even more striking in mathematics, where the average score for fourth-graders has increased 27 points over the past 17 years, with improvement across all performance levels. (A 10-point gain is roughly equivalent to gaining a grade level.)

The timing of the biennial release of fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading scores – as Congress takes up renewal of a controversial education law – could not be more politically charged.

"Student achievement is on the rise," said Secretary Margaret Spellings, after the release of the 2007 NAEP scores. "No Child Left Behind is working. It's doable, reasonable, and necessary. Any efforts to weaken accountability would fly in the face of rising achievement."

Officials releasing the report were more guarded in saying how much of the national gains could be attributed to the new federal law.

"We know what happens but not why," says Darvin Winick, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the test. "It's clear that the focus on reform in this country, particularly at the elementary level, has had a very positive effect."

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