11/26/2013 05:52 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2014

A Gust of Good News From NAEP

When it comes to weather, we pay attention to the thunder and lightning. Storms rattle our windows and light up the sky -- and then rumble off into the distance.

When it comes to permanently shaping the landscape, though, it is slow, steady and sustained force that alters the course of rivers and that literally moves mountains.

It may be that we're witnessing the impact of similar subtle shifts in the most recent report from the National Assessment for Educational Progress.

Two years ago, the average national score on NAEP's fourth grade reading test was 221. The NAEP report issued this month showed a new average score of 222.

This incremental improvement is more meaningful than you might imagine. It adds another data point to a trend line that has been building for more than 20 years.

Since the early 1990s, NAEP Reading scores are up measurably (if modestly), rising 5 points in fourth grade and 8 points in eighth. Math scores have improved impressively, increasing 28 points in fourth grade and 22 points in eighth.

Moreover, since the early 1990s, Black and Hispanic students have tended to post larger gains in math and reading, and in both grades.

For example, in eighth grade Reading, Hispanic students' scores increased by 15 points and Black students by 13 points, compared to 9 points for white students. Similarly, in fourth grade Mathematics, Black students experienced an average score increase of 37 points, compared to 30 points for white students. Hispanic students also experienced a 30 point increase.

In both eighth grade Reading and fourth grade Mathematics, an especially encouraging finding was that the students making the biggest gains were those with the lowest scores -- regardless of race.

Performance gaps still exist, but they are starting to narrow. That's important news, even if it's not accompanied by the requisite thunder and lightning.

Make no mistake. Improvement does not equal achievement. Most NAEP-tested students are still scoring below the proficient level, including significant majorities from underserved populations.

At ACT, we intend to accelerate our nation's academic progress by unveiling ACT Aspire in 2014, which is designed to help students in third grade through early high school get on track and stay on track for college and career readiness. This year, we also launched a free college and career planning community, ACT Profile, that can help students and those starting in the workplace navigate important college and career decisions.

It is a natural human tendency to pay attention to the storms, but the NAEP results clearly indicate there is sunshine peeking through the clouds. In that spirit, we need to appreciate when the breeze begins to blow at our back -- and thanks to the hard work of people from throughout the educational community, this is one of those times.

And that should just put a little wind in our sails.

Jon Erickson is President, Education and Career Solutions, for ACT, a global nonprofit organization whose mission is "Helping people achieve education and workplace success.