More of Pennsylvania’s fourth and eighth graders are proficient in math and reading than the national average, but the achievement gap between white and minority students in the commonwealth is only shrinking slightly.
"I'm glad to see achievement in Pennsylvania is generally higher than the national average, but it's not where we want it to be and we're still concerned about the racial achievement gaps not closing," said Carey Harris, executive director of A+ Schools in Pittsburgh.
According to the 2013 Nation’s Report Card released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Education, 44 percent of fourth graders and 42 percent of eighth graders in the state scored at or above the “proficient” level in math compared to 41 percent and 34 percent respectively across the nation.
For reading, 40 percent of fourth graders and 42 percent of eighth graders in Pennsylvania were at or above the proficient level compared to 34 percent and 34 percent nationally who hit the mark.
The results come from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) which is given every two years to a sample of fourth and eighth graders in every state and based on a 500 point scale in both math and reading.
Pennsylvania fourth graders scored slightly lower in both categories than their predecessors from 2011 but were still above the national average. Eighth graders in the commonwealth scored four points higher in both math and reading than two years ago and higher than the national average (290 points vs. 284 in math and 272 vs. 266 in reading).
Harris says it's a little concerning that fourth graders scored a point or two lower in math and reading than two years ago.
"We would've hoped to see progress in all grades across all years but especially in the younger grades where it's easier to get more progress more quickly," Harris said. "It's concerning that we seem to have stalled."
While there was some improvement overall among Pennsylvania students, the achievement gap between whites and African Americans shrunk only slightly.
Achievement Gap in Pennsylvania
Whites African Americans Gap Change from 2011
4th Graders 250 226 24 4 points smaller
8th Graders 297 262 35 2 points smaller
4th Graders 233 208 25 4 points smaller
8th Graders 279 250 29 3 points smaller
Achievement gaps in Pennsylvania are smaller than the national average but “not significantly different” according to the Department of Education. The lone exception is for eighth graders in math, where the national average gap is five points narrower.
According to Harris, poor and minority students who come to school behind need a bigger investment "actual dollar resources but also making sure that kids in our high poverty schools and poor kids regardless of what school they go to, are getting supports and additional resources and additional opportunities so they can get up to speed and run the same race as the rest of their peers."
In the meantime, 45 states have now approved Common Core standards to establish national benchmarks for reading and math and replace goals that vary from state to state. Pennsylvania’s Board of Education has approved Common Core but action is still needed from the state’s Independent Regulatory Review Commission.
Harris believes Common Core "can and I hope will" make a difference.
"So it will provide a tool to look at equity from that point of view, but it also raises the standards so that we're spending time and energy helping kids get to a higher standard and do more critical thinking and do more rigorous work in the classroom," she said.