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Math scores slip and reading levels flat, national test results show

Latest snapshot of results indicates little progress in narrowing achievement gap between white, black students

In a not-so rosy report card for U.S. schools and their students, math scores have slipped for fourth- and eighth-graders over the last two years while reading grades have remained flat, according to 2015 test results.

The results of the test, officially known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP, were released Wednesday, giving a snapshot of the nation’s education that also suggests little progress in narrowing the achievement gap between white and black students.

Only about a third of the nation's eighth-graders were at proficient or above in math and reading. Among fourth-graders, the results were slightly better in reading and in math, about two in five scored proficient or above.

Proficiency in math for fourth-graders — at 40 percent in 2015 — is down two percentage points from 2013, the first decline since 1990. For eight-graders, only 33 percent were proficient in math, also down two points on 2013.

There was no significant change in the achievement gap for reading between white students and their black peers, but there was a small narrowing in the gap between white fourth-graders and black contemporaries in regards math. The average score for white students was 24 points higher than black classmates, slightly down from the 26-point gap recorded in 2013.

There were a few bright spots. The District of Columbia and Mississippi both saw substantial gains in reading and math.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged parents, teachers, and others not to panic about the scores as states embrace higher academic standards, such as Common Core.

"We should expect scores in this period to bounce around some, and I think that 'implementation dip' is part of what we're seeing here," Duncan said in a phone call with reporters. "I would caution everyone to be careful about drawing conclusions ... anyone who claims to have this all figured out is pedaling a personal agenda, rather than an educational one."

Reacting to the scores, Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said one year's worth of data shouldn't send the nation's schools and teachers off in a different direction.

"Having the higher academic standards caused the states and teachers and districts to change the way they're teaching certain things," Minnich said in an interview. "We may be in a place where some of the questions that are asked on this national test aren't being taught at the same time they were being taught before."

The Common Core standards were developed by the states with the support of the administration. They spell out what students should know in English and math at each grade level, with a focus on critical thinking and less of an emphasis on memorization. But they have become a rallying point for critics who want a smaller federal role in education and some parents confounded by some of the new concepts being taught.

The NAEP tests don't align completely with Common Core, but NAEP officials said there was "quite a bit" of overlap between the tests and the college-ready standards.

Al Jazeera The Associated Press

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