"Today's economic trends show the rapidly growing need for college- and career-ready students. These results show that most of the nation's 17-year-olds are career ready, but only if you're talking about jobs from the 1970s," he added.
Black and Hispanic students at all ages narrowed the performance gap with white students, according to the report.
Among 17-year-old students, the gaps between black and white students and between Hispanic and white students were cut by half.
In math, 9-year-old black and Hispanic students today are performing at a level where black and Hispanic 13-year-olds were in the early 1970s.
"Black and Hispanic children have racked up some of the biggest gains of all," said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, an advocacy organization. "These results very clearly put to rest any notion our schools are getting worse. In fact, our schools are getting better for every group of students that they serve."
The overall composition of classrooms is changing as well.
Among 13-year-old students, 80 percent were white in 1978. By 2012, that number fell to 56 percent. The number of Hispanics roughly tripled from 6 percent in 1978 to 21 percent in 2012.
"Over a 40-year period, an awful lot changes in our education system," said Jack Buckley, the chief of the National Center for Education Statistics.
While most groups of students saw their scores climb since 1971, the same cannot be said when comparing 2008 results with 2012. The 9-year-old and 17-year-old students saw no changes and only Hispanic and female 13-year-olds showed improvement in reading and math.
The 2012 results were based on 26,000 students in public and private schools. The tests took roughly one hour and were not significantly different than when they were first administered in the early 1970s.
Unlike high-stakes tests that are included in some teachers' evaluations, these tests are a more accurate measurement because "these are not exams that teachers are not teaching to," Haycock said.
"Nobody teaches to the NAEP exam, which is why it's such as useful measure to what our kids can actually do," she said.
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