National Test Scores Fall Again

National Test Scores Fall Again
January 1, 1997

George A. Clowes

George Clowes is a Heartland senior fellow addressing education policy. He served as founding... (read full bio)



A new report on test scores designed to measure educational progress shows that the nation’s students lost ground between 1992 and 1994. Scores in reading and writing fell, while scores in math and science stayed about the same.

The test scores were made available in October in a progress report on student performance issued by the U.S. Department of Education as part of a long-term trend analysis of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests. NAEP tests in math, science, and reading have been given to students aged 9, 13, and 17 every two years since the early 1970s. Writing tests have been given every two years for the last ten years.

Although the 1994 NAEP study was scheduled for release in November 1996, a summary report was issued a month early in response to Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole’s charges that the scores were being “held hostage” until after the election.

Whether the scores were in fact being “held hostage” is not clear. But upon their release they suffered in comparison to earlier scores. Reading scores for two out of the three age groups fell between 1992 and 1994. Writing scores for all three age groups also fell. Current writing scores for grades 8 and 11 are lower than the average scores achieved when the tests were first administered.

The results in math and science, while not as bad, are still not encouraging. Average scores for both math and science stayed about the same from 1992 to 1994 for all three age groups. Current science scores for the 17-year-olds are significantly lower than they were in 1969, when the science test was first administered. However, current math scores for 9- and 13-year-olds are significantly higher than they were in 1973, when the math test was first given.

The NAEP report also provides details of the progress made towards closing performance gaps between racial groups. Again, the scores show few gains. The gap between the scores of blacks and whites for reading and science actually widened since the late 1980s for all age groups. Since 1986, the gap between the math scores of 13-year-old blacks and whites also widened, as did the gap between 9-year-old and 13-year-old whites and Hispanics. The gap between science and reading scores for 17-year-old whites and Hispanics also widened since 1990.

As for progress on closing gender gaps, the report shows that reading and writing scores for girls are consistently higher than those for boys. Although boys generally score better than girls in science and math, the gap between 17-year-old boys and girls has narrowed since 1973.

NAEP is a congressionally mandated project of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) at the U.S. Department of Education. The NCES contracts with qualified testing organizations to produce and administer the evaluations. The NAEP 1994 Trends in Academic Progress was prepared by principal researchers Jay R. Campbell, Clyde M. Reese, Christine O’Sullivan, and John A. Dossey of Educational Testing Service. Their full report was issued by the U.S. Department of Education on November 26, 1996.


George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is clowes@heartland.org.

George A. Clowes

George Clowes is a Heartland senior fellow addressing education policy. He served as founding... (read full bio)