Op-Ed: The Nation Isn’t Moving Fast Enough for Students of Color

Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have risen for black and Latino kids—but much more work needs to be done.

National Assessment of Educational Progress

The National Assessment of Educational Progress scores show that education outcomes are improving for black and Latino kids. (Photo: Boston Globe via Getty Images)

is a K-12 policy analyst at The Education Trust.

Every day, it seems like there’s another story about the decline of the once-great American school system. But new results from an old source show us that those stories are just plain wrong.

Given every few years to nine, 13, and 17-year-olds across the country, the National Assessment of Educational Progress long-term trend assessment is considered the “gold standard” of assessments. It provides a national perspective on how all of our students are doing—and on how their performance has changed over the last 40 years.

The results are encouraging. Since the 1970s, we’ve seen scores rise dramatically for black, Latino, and white students at all ages. Today, black and Latino nine-year-olds are performing at the same level in math as their 13-year-old counterparts were in the 1970s.

What’s more, performance has risen more for black and Latino students than for white students, so achievement gaps have narrowed dramatically at all ages. Among 17-year-olds, for example, both the black-white and Latino-white reading gaps have narrowed by about half.

At best, students of color are just now scoring as well as white students did about 25 years ago.

Scores have also gone up for both low-performing and high-performing students. Since 1978, for example, math scores have risen by 27 points for low-performing 13-year-olds and 16 points for high-performing 13-year-olds. We’re not only bringing the bottom up; we’re also moving those at the top to even higher levels.

Despite this good news, we can’t for a minute rest on our laurels. Though gaps are narrower than they were, they’re still far too wide. At best, students of color are just now scoring as well as white students did about 25 years ago—and that’s only true for younger students in math.

In other words, the nation isn’t moving fast enough for students of color—and that’s a serious problem given the demographic shift taking place in the United States. Already, children of color make up the majority of our youngest students, and by fall 2016, more than half of public school students nationwide are projected to be non-white. Given that, we can’t settle for low performance and only incremental gains among students of color. We need to accelerate progress, and to keep that progress going over time, if we’re going to remain internationally competitive.

So, how can we do that? Forty-five states have taken a huge step by adopting the Common Core State Standards in English language arts and math. These standards, which were designed to prepare students to meet the demands of college, the workplace, and society, have the potential to take our students’ achievement to new heights. But for that to happen, we need to:

  • Make sure that teachers understand the standards, and have materials and support that will help them teach them;
  • Ensure that schools serving the most low-income students and students of color are funded fairly;
  • Set clear goals for raising achievement and closing gaps and hold schools, districts, and states accountable for meeting those goals;
  • Provide clear, useful information to parents that will help them understand which schools, districts, and states aren’t performing at high levels—and for whom.

The long-term trend results remind us that with the right policies and practices, we can dramatically raise achievement for students of color. We’ve made real progress; now it’s time to go the rest of the way.

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