Earlier this month, the National Center for Education Statistics released another round of results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card. While both fourth- and eighth-grade math scores saw modest increases, this glimmer of good news is dimmed, unfortunately, by persistently flat reading scores.

Since 1996, fourth-graders’ math skills have improved significantly—by some 17 points on a 500-point scale, and eighth-grade math has improved 14 points over the same time period. However, since 1998, fourth-graders have improved their reading scores by just six points and eighth graders by just two points.

Overall, the 2011 NAEP results continue an unsettling trend of lagging achievement among the nation’s students. Today, only 40 percent of fourth-grade children in the U.S. are proficient in math, along with 34 percent of eighth-graders. And in 2011, just 32 percent of fourth- and eighth-graders can read proficiently.

When the nation’s mediocre NAEP performance is coupled with the fact that, as Professor Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas details in his “Global Report Card,” children in suburban school districts in the U.S. are “barely keeping pace with the average student in other developed countries,” the outcomes are even more concerning.

It’s not just overall NAEP results that should concern researchers, parents, and policymakers alike. It’s the discreet data about the performance of certain subgroups, such as low-income children. Education researcher Matthew Ladner notes:

Ten points roughly equals a grade level worth of progress. Low-income [4th grade] kids in Alaska and DC are reading almost as poorly as 1st graders in Massachusetts, which is to say, not much at all.

Unfortunately, stagnant test scores and nagging achievement gaps have been the trend for American students over the last four decades. Yet while achievement flounders, federal education spending and regulations have soared. Since the first authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—today known as No Child Left Behind—in 1965, federal spending on education has tripled. Yet Congress continues to pursue the same failed approach to education. Most recently, Senators Tom Harkin (D–IA) and Mike Enzi (R–WY) introduced a massive, 860-page education bill to reauthorize ESEA, somehow convinced that this time Washington-centric education policy will work.

Rather than more federal spending and ever more regulations from federal politicians, states should have the flexibility to implement practices that will lead to better results among their specific students.

Decades of attempts to improve education from Washington have failed to improve student learning or narrow achievement gaps. Rather than help schools, Washington has bound them with regulations and made schools more accountable to federal politicians than to children and families. Policies that give states autonomy in deciding how to spend their education dollars are the types of reforms that could finally move the needle on the NAEP and on America’s academic standing in K-12 education.

Matt Larsen is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm