A Half Century of Student Progress Nationwide

M. Danish Shakeel and Paul E. Peterson
Year of publication: 
August 09, 2022
Education Next

Has the achievement of U.S. students improved over the past half century? Have gaps between racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups widened or narrowed?

These and similar questions provoke near-constant conversation. But answers are uncertain, partly because research to date has yielded inconsistent findings. Here we bring together information from every nationally representative testing program consistently administered in the United States over the past 50 years to document trends in student achievement from 1971 to 2017, the last year for which detailed information is currently available.

Contrary to what you may have heard, average student achievement has been increasing for half a century. Across 7 million tests taken by U.S. students born between 1954 and 2007, math scores have grown by 95 percent of a standard deviation, or nearly four years’ worth of learning. Reading scores have grown by 20 percent of a standard deviation per decade during that time, nearly one year’s worth of learning.

When we examine differences by student race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, longstanding assumptions about educational inequality start to falter. Black, Hispanic, and Asian students are improving far more quickly than their white classmates in elementary, middle, and high school. In elementary school, for example, reading scores for white students have grown by 9 percent of a standard deviation each decade, compared to 28 percent for Asian students, 19 percent for Black students, and 13 percent for Hispanic students. Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds also are progressing more quickly than their more advantaged peers in elementary and middle school. And for the most part, growth rates have remained steady throughout the past five decades.

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