Student Performance: The National Agenda in Education

December 1, 1999

For more than 30 years, the primary goal of U.S. federal education policy has been to ensure equality of educational opportunity. The creation of programs like Title I, Head Start, and bilingual education in the 1960s and special education for handicapped children in the 1970s directed federal resources to children who had been poorly served by the nation’s state- and locally based education system. If measured by the goals of removing legal barriers and providing equality of access, federal policy has been successful. Now federal education policies must attach the highest priority to strategies that boost student performance for all groups.

The State of Student Performance It comes as news to no one that U.S. student performance is lagging. The federally funded National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), the nation’s only measure of academic achievement that tests representative national samples, has been tracking performance over the past few decades. From 1969 to 1996,according to NAEP, 9 – year-olds made significant gains in science, but 13-year-olds showed no change, and 17-year-olds lost ground. In mathematics, from 1973 to 1996, students at ages 9 and 13 showed improvement, but the performance of 17-year-olds was unchanged. In reading, from 1971 to 1996, scores improved for children aged 9 and 13, but not for the older group. In writing, tested from 1984 to 1996, performance was flat for the two younger groups and declined for the 17- year-olds.