The National Assessment of Educational Progress released the results of its 2009 math and reading tests a couple of weeks ago. The scores for District of Columbia public school students are, like last year’s, a good news/bad news story.

Good news first. Math and reading scores for both fourth and eighth graders improved somewhat.

Gains in math averaged five points at the fourth-grade level and six points at the eighth-grade level. Gains in reading also averaged five points for fourth graders. The average eighth-grade reading score went up by one point.

Only four states also registered gains on all four tests. Nationwide, fourth grade scores remained flat. Eighth grade scores went up by two points in math and, as in the District, one in reading.

Now the mostly bad news. The District’s scores were still lower than those of any state — thus well below the national averages. And the differences aren’t small.

For math, 20 points below the national average for fourth graders and 28 points below for eighth graders. For reading, another point spread of 20 points for fourth graders and, for eighth graders, 18 points.

For me, however, it’s the breakdowns that set off alarm bells.

Consider first the percentages of students whose scores fell below the basic level, *i.e.*, who couldn’t demonstrate even “partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work” at their grade level.

In math, 44% of fourth graders and 60% of eighth graders tested below basic, as compared to 19% and 29% nationwide. In reading, the below basic percentages were 56% for fourth graders and 49% for eighth graders, as compared to 34% and 26% nationwide.

That said, all the D.C. below-basic percentages were lower than in 2007. They were also, with the exception of eighth-grade reading, by far and away lower than in 1992, when NAEP began tracking.

Louder alarm bells when we look at the race/ethnicity breakdowns.

At the fourth-grade level,* the average math score for black children was 57 points below the average for white children. The average reading score was 60 points lower. And neither of these point spreads was significantly different from in 1992.

For Hispanic children, the gaps were 43 points for math and 49 points for reading. The math gap has narrowed significantly since 1992. The reading gap is statistically the same.

Here again, we need to be especially concerned about the children who are so far behind that they can’t score at even the basic level. For black children, 50% of them in math and 63% of them in reading. Percentages for Hispanic children were 30% in math and 49% in reading.

But look at the really big gap. All but 1% of white children broke through the basic level in math and all but 6% in reading.

Both the point spreads and the very low scores seem linked to family economic situation. Fourth graders poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches scored, on average, 31 points lower in math and 33 points lower in reading than their better-off counterparts. Though the reading gap was significantly narrower than in 1996, but math gap wasn’t.

In short, the D.C. public schools seem to be making some progress in teaching children the two most basic academic skill sets they’ll need to qualify for all but the lowest-paying jobs our local economy offers.

But black and Hispanic children are the overwhelming majority in the system and surely also in the free and reduced-price lunch category. Large numbers of both will still be at a huge disadvantage unless the reforms that have been initiated produce greater and faster results than I think anyone can reasonably expect.

* NAEP reports comparative race/ethnicity data only for D.C. fourth graders. It says that reporting standards weren’t met for white students at the eighth-grade level. No explanation for this, but the raw figures suggest it could be the very small number in the sample.

Though the numbers add a moment for pause and consideration, the information isn’t new news. Nationally where there is poverty and race we are caught in our rhetoric, our discussions, our inability, our research, our ineffective efforts of making it so that the American Dream is imaginable for all…..education is the sleep of dreams

You’re certainly right about the basic information, Kelly. The gaps themselves are no news. I do, however, think it’s important to know that they persist despite the rules, requirements, incentives, etc. that are supposed to address them.

[…] see the same income-based disparities in scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, which are broken out to let us compare those for students whose families are poor enough to […]