By Stephanie Simon
BOSTON (Reuters) - The achievement gap between white and minority children has narrowed considerably in recent decades, as black and Hispanic students have posted strong gains on math and reading tests, according to a new report out Thursday.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as "the nation's report card," found that minority students at all ages tested - 9, 13 and 17 years old - have made substantial progress on standardized tests since the early 1970s.
Black and Hispanic students made up a third to half of the gulf that had separated their average reading scores from the average scores of white students, the report found. The progress was nearly as good in math.
Proficiency at specific skills also grew over the decades. In math, for instance, 13-year-olds of all races tested in 2012 were far more likely than their counterparts from the 1970s to be proficient at interpreting data from a table and factoring numbers. In reading, 9-year-olds were more adept at making inferences from nonfiction texts and grasping figures of speech.
"These results fly in the face of any notion that our schools are getting worse," said Daria Hall, a policy director at The Education Trust, an advocacy group focused on closing the achievement gap. "We have here unequivocal evidence that schools are getting better."
The only scores to stagnate were the overall averages for 17-year-olds. While black and Hispanic students improved quite dramatically, the overall averages for the age group barely budged in either reading or math.
Peggy Carr, a federal education analyst, said the flat trendline among older students was actually good news.
More 17-year-olds with shaky academic records are staying in school rather than dropping out, which makes them eligible to take the NAEP exams, she said. Given this influx of lower-performing students into the testing pool, "it's a good thing that are not going down," said Carr, an associate commissioner with the National Center for Education Statistics.
Surveys conducted alongside the exams allowed researchers to serve up snapshots of students then and now.
The percentage of 9-year-olds who say they read for fun almost every day has held fairly constant, at about 53 percent, since the question was first asked in 1984, they found.
But pleasure reading has dropped sharply among older kids. Just 19 percent of 17-year-olds reported reading on their own time in 2012, down from 31 percent in 1984.
Students today, however, are more likely to push themselves - or be pushed - in school. More than a third of 13-year-olds were taking algebra in 2012, double the rate in 1986. And the percentage of 17-year-olds taking calculus or pre-calculus more than tripled.
The report also captured a striking demographic change in U.S. schools. In 1978, fully 80 percent of students tested were white. By 2012, whites made up just 56 percent of the pool, as the share of Hispanic students had more than tripled, to 21 percent.
(Reporting by Stephanie Simon; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Nick Zieminski)