WASHINGTON -- African-American and Hispanic students at the elementary school level are catching up with their white counterparts in reading and math, but there has been little closing of the achievement gap in the higher grades, according to a study released yesterday.
The Bush administration seized on the data from the widely respected National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, as evidence that its educational reforms are working. But the independent body that administers the tests urged caution, saying that much of the improvement could have come from reforms put in place before passage of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.
The NAEP study of long-term educational trends indicated a significant improvement among white, black, and Hispanic 9-year-olds in the 2003-2004 school year in math and reading, compared with five years before. But blacks and Hispanics made greater gains than whites in both subjects.
''There is a lot of good news here," said Darvin Winick, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board. ''While the differences [between whites and minorities] are still too large, we are happy to see that there has been some narrowing."
Modest gains were registered by 13-year-olds, particularly in math, but the performance of 17-year-olds remained flat, bolstering the widespread belief that high schools are the weakest link in the US education system.
NAEP, which dubs itself the ''Nation's Report Card," has been using the same standardized tests since 1971 to shed light on long-term educational trends. During that period the achievement gap between black and white 9-year-olds narrowed from 44 points, on a 500-point scale, to 26 points. The gap narrowed by 9 points in the most recent five-year period.
The study suggested that at least some of the gains can be attributed to a greater emphasis on reading, particularly in the early grades, going back to the mid-1990s. One of every four respondents between ages 9 and 13 said they read more than 20 pages per day in school and for homework in 2004, compared with 19 percent in 1999 and 13 percent in 1984.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings hailed the report as evidence that No Child Left Behind is working and that the achievement gap ''that persisted for decades between minorities and whites has shrunk to its smallest size in history."
But Winick urged caution about attributing progress to No Child Left Behind and said the narrowing of the achievement gap can be traced back to at least 1999, before the Bush administration took office. Other analysts noted that the NAEP study was conducted in the fall and winter of 2003-2004, in the early stages of the implementation of No Child Left Behind.