A blizzard of education reports and studies appears every year. This swirl of information, analysis, and commentary — some of which is contradictory — makes it difficult to understand the condition of America’s public schools. In short, are the schools getting better or worse?

In December of 2013, two major points stand out from the mass of material released this year. First, American public school students have shown increased achievement over the long term, especially African Americans and Latinos. Second, that progress has stalled in recent years.

The first point is most clearly shown in the June 2013 release of longitudinal data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) — the most authoritative national data on changes in student achievement. Some noteworthy results of that study contradict the notion that schools today are worse than they were in the “good old days”. NAEP’s 2012 long-term trend assessment shows that students in the two younger tested groups — 9- and 13-year-olds — scored significantly higher in reading and math than these age groups did forty years ago in the early 1970s. Scores for 17-year-olds, the third age group tested by NAEP, are a point or two higher than they were in the 1970s but the difference is not statistically significant.

Thus, NAEP shows no declines in test scores compared to 40 years ago among any of the three age groups tested; rather, it documents increases. This is particularly a sign of progress because a larger proportion of the students tested in more recent years compared to the 1970s are English language learners and students with disabilities.

Further, the same NAEP long-term data shows that the traditional academic achievement gaps between white and African American students and between whites and Latinos have declined significantly since the early 1970s. White, African American, and Latino students all scored higher on those NAEP tests than did students from the same racial and ethnic groups in the 1970s, but African American and Latino students made greater gains than white students.

More good news comes from another federal report: more students are finishing high school than did students four decades ago. This is a more positive accomplishment than it first appears because the states are using a more rigorous standard for high school completion than many states used in the past. To describe this conclusion conversely, the dropout rate has declined, which means that many more students will have a better chance to get a good job and earn more money.

Now, for the less heartening news, student test scores in recent years according to NAEP are at a standstill.

NAEP’s long-term study shows no increases since 2008 in reading and math test scores for students aged 9 and 17. The same stagnation exists for 13-year-old white and African American students in both areas. Latino students likewise did not increase their scores in math, but they did make gains in reading.

A different NAEP assessment released this year, the so-called main NAEP, shows mixed trends from 2011 to 2013. White, African American, and Latino students made no gains in reading but some gains in math. It’s important to note that the content tested by the main NAEP periodically changes and so trend lines are broken. Thus, the longitudinal NAEP described in the previous paragraphs is a better gauge of long-term trends because it assesses basically the same content from the early 1970s to the present.

In this last month of 2013, further evidence appeared of a stalling of student performance, this time from an international survey. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2012 tested 15-year-olds from 65 countries about their ability to apply practically what they had learned in school in math, reading, and science. These 65 countries include 34 more economically developed nations that are members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which administers the PISA tests.

In mathematics literacy, the average performance of U.S. 15-year-olds was lower than that of 29 countries, higher than 26 countries, and not measurably different from nine countries. The U.S. students performed below the average of the OECD member nations. In science and reading, U.S. scores were not measurably different from the OECD average. The U.S. student achievement on the 2012 PISA has not changed measurably since 2003, while achievement in for many other countries has improved.

Looking at achievement trends across these different assessments raises questions about the effectiveness of our current approach to school reform in the U.S. By 2008 and certainly by 2012, we should have seen evidence of a positive impact on achievement from the test-driven reforms of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 (NCLB). The fact that scores on these major tests have not increased calls into question NCLB’s approach of pressuring teachers, labeling schools, and imposing penalties for lack of performance as the means to increase test scores.

So again, I propose that two major take-away points remain from all the research and analysis done this year. First, it is possible to raise student test scores, including those of student groups who traditionally have not done well in the schools. And second, since penalties have been attached to a failure to raise test scores, scores have remained fairly stagnant.

In the U.S., most of our eggs are in the basket of test-driven school reform. The evidence to date has shown that this approach is not producing results on NAEP. Thus, are we relying too much on tests to drive other improvements in schooling? Have we taken too narrow an approach to school improvement?

The conclusions from 2013 are that American schools have improved since the 1970s, but recently progress in raising test scores has stalled. It is time for a better approach to school improvement than the one now in use.

On December 19, 2013 this appeared as a blog by Jack Jennings in the Huffington Post.