First comprehensive analysis finds broad gains in U.S. student test scores over last five decades

Larger gains for students of color than for white students

Cambridge, Massachusetts, Aug. 09, 2022 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- The math and reading achievement of U. S. students has been rising for half a century with Black, Hispanic, and Asian students showing steeper improvement than their white classmates, M. Danish Shakeel (University of Buckingham) and Paul E. Peterson (Harvard University) report in a new article for Education Next.

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The analysis of more than 7 million tests taken by U.S. students born between 1954 and 2007 is the first of its kind, bringing together data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Long-Term Trend (LTT) Assessment, Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). The authors estimate trends separately by testing program, subject, and grade level.

Among the key findings:

  • Clear progress for U.S. students over 50 years of testing in both subjects, but steeper gains in math than reading. In math, the performances of students, on average, rose by 19 percent of a standard deviation per decade, which over 50 years amounts to nearly four additional years of learning. In reading, the gains are only 4 percent of a standard deviation, just short of about one year of additional reading over the entire period.
  • Growth over time for students of all racial and ethnic groups. Gaps in test performance in both subjects are narrowing, with Hispanic, Black, and Asian students making greater progress in both subjects compared to white students. The Black-white test gap closed to about half its size at the beginning of the 50-year period; a similar trend is observed for the Hispanic-white gap. Asian students, who once trailed white students, now outperform them.
  • Steepest growth when students are tested at a younger age. Growth rates decrease when students enter adolescence and are much smaller by the time students near the end of K–12 schooling.  
  • Larger gains for disadvantaged students in elementary school, but differences decline and are reversed as students age. Students in the bottom 25 percent of the socioeconomic distribution are making more progress than their classmates in the top 25 percent in both elementary and middle school. The differences shrink in middle school and by high school, the highest socioeconomic group makes larger gains. For all students, the achievement gap based on socioeconomic status closes by 3 percent of a standard deviation per decade in both reading and math, about a half years’ worth of learning over the entire period.

That math achievement has accelerated notably faster than reading performances may be due to improving environmental conditions for students when the brain is most malleable—in early childhood, or even before students are born—the authors say, drawing on recent studies in neurobiology and human intelligence. In particular, improved conditions for brain development may benefit student abilities to analyze abstract relationships crucial for math achievement.

“Policies benefiting children from the very beginning of life could have as much impact on academic achievement, especially in math, as focused interventions attempted when students are older,” Shakeel and Peterson write.

A more technical version of this article appears in Educational Psychology Review (March 2022) as “A Half Century of Progress in US Student Achievement: Agency and Flynn Effects, Ethnic and SES Differences.” 

About the Author: Paul E. Peterson is a professor and director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. M. Danish Shakeel is a professor and director of the E. G. West Centre for Education Policy at University of Buckingham, U. K.

About Education Next: Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Education Next Institute and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. For more information, please visit



Clear Progress for U.S. Students Over 50 Years of Testing Growth Over Time for Students of All Racial and Ethnic Groups

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