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HKS Authors

See citation below for complete author information.

Professor of Public Policy, HKS; Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government, FAS


Principals (policymakers) disagree as to whether U. S. student performance has changed over the past half century. To inform conversations, agents administered seven million psychometrically linked tests in math (m) and reading (rd) in 160 survey waves to national probability samples of cohorts born between 1954 and 2007. Estimated change in standard deviations (sd) per decade varies by agent (m: -0.10sd to 0.27sd, rd: -0.02sd to 0.12sd). Consistent with Flynn effects, median trends show larger gains in m (0.19sd) than rd (0.04sd), though rates of progress for cohorts born since 1990 have increased in rd but slowed in m. Greater progress is shown by students tested at younger ages (m: 0.31sd, rd: 0.08sd) than when tested in middle years of schooling (m: 0.17sd, rd: 0.03sd) or toward end of schooling (m:0.06sd, rd: 0.02sd). Young white students progress more slowly (m: 0.28sd, rd: 0.09sd) than Asian (m: 46sd, rd: 0.28sd), black (m: 0.36sd, rd: 0.19sd) and Hispanic (m: 0.29sd, rd: 0.13sd) students. These ethnic differences generally attenuate as students age. Young students in the bottom quartile of the SES distribution show greater progress than those in the top quartile (difference in m: 0.08sd, in rd: 0.15sd), but the reverse is true for older students. Moderators likely include not only changes in families and schools but also improvements in nutrition, health care, and protection from contagious diseases and environmental risks. International data suggest that subject and age differentials may be due to moderators more general than just the United States.


Shakeel, M. Danish, and Paul E. Peterson. "A Half Century of Progress in U. S. Student Achievement: Ethnic and SES Differences; Agency and Flynn Effects." Program on Education Policy and Governance Working Papers Series, December 2021.