Every once in a while, a new set of test scores is released by the National Assessment Governing Board, the federal agency that supervises the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Just a few days ago, the NAEP scores for science were released for 4th and 8th grades, and once again there was woe and gnashing of teeth in the land (http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/05/10/31naep_ep.h31.html?tkn=VPXFO3wzO2s%2Bbex2WwFqNNnCfYtzrpCNzSmA&cmp=ENL-EU-NEWS1). The scores had improved, but not enough to satisfy the nay-sayers.

The media react with alarm every time the NAEP scores appear because only about one-third or so of students is rated “proficient.” This is supposed to be something akin to a national tragedy because presumably almost every child should be “proficient.” Remember, under No Child Left Behind, ALL students are supposed to be proficient in reading and math by the year 2014.

Since I served on NAGB for seven years, I can explain what the board’s “achievement levels” mean. There are four levels. At the top is “advanced.” Then comes “proficient.” Then “basic.” And last, “below basic.”

Advanced is truly superb performance, which is like getting an A+. Among fourth graders, 8% were advanced readers in 2011; 3% of eighth graders were advanced. In reading, these numbers have changed little in the past twenty years. In math, there has been a pretty dramatic growth in national scores over these past twenty years: the proportion of students who scored advanced in fourth grade grew from 2% in 1992 to 7% in 2011. In eighth grade, the proportion who were advanced in math grew from 3% in 1992 to 8% in 2011.

Proficient is akin to a solid A. In reading, the proportion who were proficient in fourth grade reading rose from 29% in 1992 to 34% in 2011. The proportion proficient in eighth grade also rose from 29% to 34% in those years. In math, the proportion in fourth grade who were proficient rose from 18% to 40% in the past twenty years, an absolutely astonishing improvement. In eighth grade, the proportion proficient in math went from 21% in 1992 to an amazing 35% in 2011.

Basic is akin to a B or C level performance. Good but not good enough.

And below basic is where we really need to worry. These are the students who really don’t understand math or read well at all. The proportion who are below basic has dropped steadily in both reading and math in fourth and eighth grades since 1992.

When the scores are broken out by race, you can really see dramatic progress, especially in math. In 1992, 80% of black students in fourth grade were below basic. By 2011, that proportion had dropped to 49%. Among white students in fourth grade math, the proportion below basic fell in that time period from 40% to only 16%.

The changes in reading scores are not as dramatic as in math, but they are nonetheless impressive. In fourth grade, the proportion of black students who were below basic in 1992 was 68%; by 2011, it was down to 51%. In eighth grade, the proportion of black students who were reading below basic was 55%; that had fallen to 41% by 2011.

The point here is that NAEP scores show steady and very impressive improvement over the past twenty years. Our problems are tough, but they are not intractable. The next time someone tells you that U.S. education is “failing,” or “declining,” tell them they are wrong.