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NAEP Results in Reading, Writing Show Few Gains

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Washington--Despite small gains, particularly for minorities, student achievement in reading and writing has shown little improvement since the early 1970's, two reports issued here last week show.

A report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, based on a 1988 test of 100,000 elementary-, middle-, and high-school students, found that students at age 9 and 17 were reading better in 1988 than their counterparts tested in 1971, and that those at age 13 were reading at about the same level.

But most of the improvement took place in the 1970's, before the recent round of intensive school reform, the report states.

And, it says, most of the reading gains have been in rudimentary skills, rather than on more complex tasks.

For example, in 1988, the proportion of 17-year-olds able to perform at the advanced level of reading found in professional and technical work environments--4.8 percent--was significantly smaller than the portion who could perform such exercises in 1971--7 percent.

In writing, a separate NAEP study of some 18,000 students in grades 4, 8, and 11 found that performance at all grade levels remains low and has changed little since 1974. Fewer than half the high-school students tested in 1988, that study found, were able to write adequately on five of the six tasks assigned.

Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos said the two tests' findings suggest that the "haphazard and piecemeal" school reforms of the 1980's have failed to raise students' "dreadfully inadequate" reading and writing skills.

"If anyone still doubts that it is time for change at an elemental, fundamental level, these data should be persuasive," he said at a press conference here. "I have said it repeatedly, our educational system must be restructured. We need a revolution in teaching and learning."

Archie E. Lapointe, NAEP's executive director, said the gains that did take place reflect the national movement to focus on basic skills and to improve educational opportunities for disadvantaged youths. If President Bush and the nation's governors set national goals for higher performance for all students in reading and writing, he predicted, future national assessments are likely to show better results.

"When we set clear, consistent goals," Mr. Lapointe said, "schools can achieve them."

Narrowing the Gap

The reports issued last week are the first from the 1988 national assessment, a Congressionally mandated test of student achievement in a variety of subject areas. The reading and writing tests have been given approximately once every four years since the early 1970's.

Known as the "nation's report card," NAEP is currently operated by the Educational Testing Service under contract to the Education Department.

Like past NAEP reports, the new studies describe student performance without interpreting the results. But NAEP's governing board has tentatively approved a plan to set goals for performance. Under that plan, future NAEP reports would compare actual performance on the assessments to the standards set. (See Education Week, Dec. 13, 1989.)

The reading report shows that 17-year-olds, whose performance remained fairly constant in the 1970's, showed improvements between 1980 and 1984 and again between 1984 and 1988.

By contrast, performance by 9-year-olds, who had registered sharp gains in the 1970's, declined in the early 1980's and remained at that low level during the past four years, while 13-year-olds' performance remained steady throughout the 17-year period.

The high-school students' gains, the report points out, were driven almost entirely by black students, who narrowed considerably the gap between their performance and that of their white counterparts. In 1971, white students outperformed blacks by 53 points on NAEP's 500-point scale; in 1988, the gap was 20 points.

These improvements are particularly impressive, noted Emerson J. Elliott, acting commissioner of the National Center for Educational Statistics, in light of the fact that the proportion of black students in high school and the high-school graduation rate for blacks have increased in recent years. Because more black students who might otherwise have dropped out of school are remaining in school, he said, black performance might have been expected to decline.

Mr. Lapointe suggested that the gains may reflect the influence of Head Start and other compensatory-education programs for disadvantaged students. "It may mean that early intervention and compensatory programs are having an effect on reading," he said at the press conference.

But despite these improvements, the report states, the disparities that remain between the performance of white and black students "are a serious concern."

And, it notes, 9-year-olds taking the test more recently "have shown a pattern of small but steady declines during the 1980's."

Such lack of progress among younger students, it adds, may foreshadow similar declines at ages 13 and 17 in future assessments.

Low Levels of Skill

The report also points out that much of the improvement that took place in reading performance has been in lower levels of skill, rather than on more complex tasks.

Although most students could answer questions requiring generalizations about specific facts, they had difficulty answering questions about facts embedded in more complex texts, and in reformulating ideas in writing.

Moreover, the proportion of 9-year-olds demonstrating basic reading skills and strategies has declined significantly throughout the 1980's, according to the report. In 1980, 68 percent of students at that age could locate and identify facts from simple informational paragraphs, stories, and news articles, and make inferences based on short passages; in 1988, 62 percent could perform such tasks.

In addition, the report says, schools have "not succeeded in raising the proportions of older students who develop adept or advanced reading abilities."

In 1988, only about 42 percent of 17-year-olds--slightly more than in 1980--could read and comprehend complicated literary and informational passages, including material they study in school. And fewer than 5 percent--30 percent fewer than in 1971--could apply the skills needed to comprehend the kinds of specialized materials prevalent in business and higher education.

"Whether they are in or out of school," the report states, "17-year-olds who have not developed adept reading skills and strategies would appear to be at risk as they become adults in a society that depends so heavily on the ability to extract meaning from varied forms of written language."

Writing Performance

The writing assessment asked students to complete brief informative descriptions, reports, and analyses, such as describing a desirable summer job; to write persuasive arguments, such as a letter to a senator on funds for the space program; and to invent their own stories.

As in 1984, students in 1988 performed best on informative tasks. In each year, two-thirds of the 11th graders tested were able to use personal information to write a job application, and slightly more than half were able to write a newspaper report from given information.

But the study also showed that, despite small improvements between 1984 and 1988, "a vast majority of high-school juniors still could not write a persuasive paper that was judged adequate to influence others or move them to action."

And, it found, although most 4th graders demonstrated knowledge of the basics of storytelling, only 15 percent could write well-developed stories.

The report also points out that the gap between whites' and minorities' writing performance remains considerable. In 1988 and 1984, Hispanic and black 11th graders performed less well than white 8th graders, it notes.

In analyzing factors that may explain performance, the study found that students at all grade levels were more likely in 1988 to report that they wrote an essay, composition, or theme in school.

But, it found, despite the increased emphasis on teaching "the writing process," the proportion of students who reported using planning strategies or moving sentences or paragraphs when revising declined from 1984 to 1988. In addition, 4th graders were less likely in 1988 than in 1984 to report that their teachers made comments on their papers.

The report also notes that student attitudes toward writing have shown no improvement over time. As in 1984, only about half of students tested in 1988 said they valued the importance of writing, and their views did not change dramatically as they progressed through school.

Copies of "The Reading Report Card, 1971-1988" are available for $10 each, including shipping and handling costs, from: The National Assessment of Educational Progress, P.O. Box 6710, Princeton, N.J. 08541-6710.

Copies of "The Writing Report Card, 1984-88" are available for $12 each from the same address. There is a half-price discount for orders of three copies or more of either report.

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