By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
---- — INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana’s fourth-graders scored higher on the nation’s benchmark standardized tests in math and English than their peers in most other states, but minority and poor students in Indiana are still lagging behind.Indiana eighth-graders, on average, also improved their scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Education Thursday.On the NAEP tests, administered to a sampling of students in every state across the nation, Indiana fourth-graders saw a 5-point jump in their test results over 2011. The state’s eighth-graders saw a more modest increase. But barely one-third of those 8th-grade students scored “proficient” on the NAEP math and English tests.Indiana’s modestly rising marks reflect progress made by students around the nation, but U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan said the pace of progress isn’t moving fast enough.“We’re not seeing transformational change but modest progress,” Duncan said, in a call to reporters Wednesday during a preview of the test results. The NAEP, also known as The Nation’s Report Card, is seen as a reliable gauge of K-12 academic progress since it’s given to a large cross-section of students. The test has been administered to public and private school students by the U.S. Department of Education every two years since the 1990s.An Indiana high school teacher who sits on the NAEP board said the state’s upward trend over the last 13 years is encouraging, but he also echoed Duncan’s concerns about the modest nature of the gains.“Scores have increased since 1990 with the 2013 average scores for both grade levels being higher than all previous years,” said Dale Nowlin, who teaches math at Columbus North High School. “There has been a significant shift in the positive direction for all achievement levels.”Nowlin noted the percentage of students falling below the “basic” benchmark of knowledge of fourth-grade math has decreased from 50 percent in 1990 to 17 percent in 2013, indicating long-term progress.But he also expressed concern about Indiana’s “achievement gap” that shows students most at risk for failure — minority and low-income students — are still lagging behind. The NAEP test results, for example, show black students averaged a score of more than 20 points less on the 4th- and 8th-grade reading and math tests than white students. The state has made better progress closing the gap between white and Hispanic students, but the difference is still significant.Nowlin said closing the achievement gap is critical. “This challenge becomes an even greater issue when you consider the changing demographics of our nation,” he said.Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, a critic of standardized tests, released a statement Thursday acknowledging the NAEP results. “I am encouraged by the gains that Hoosier students showed on these tests, particularly their gains in the fourth grade,” Ritz said. “This is yet another sign of the hard work and dedication exhibited by our educators, administrators, parents, and most importantly, students every day in our schools.”Ritz’s predecessor, former state schools chief Tony Bennett, a supporter of standardized tests, released his own statement saying the rise in test scores validates the sweeping education reforms he’d put into place before Ritz defeated him in his race for re-election last November.“After years of observing stagnant growth, Indiana’s results on ‘the nation's report card’ validate our long-held belief that given the right policy framework Indiana teachers and students could achieve higher levels of academic achievement,” Bennett said. “I am particularly encouraged by the very dramatic improvement in fourth-grade scores. These students were kindergartners when Indiana’s reform efforts began in earnest.” The results of NAEP tests, both for the nation and for Indiana students, can be found on the NAEP website at nationsreportcard.gov.• Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.