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Students' Reading Skills Fall Short, NAEP Data Find

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WASHINGTON--More than two-thirds of the nation's 4th-, 8th-, and 12th-grade students--including one-quarter of high school seniors--are not proficient readers, according to the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The data, released last week, also contained some particularly disturbing news about black students.

Even though the gap in reading achievement between white and black students has narrowed in recent decades, the national assessment shows that it remains wide. The percentage of black high school seniors who scored at the proficient level, for example, was less than half that for white students.

"The results of this study are extremely troubling,'' said Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. "As a nation, America will certainly go from great to second-rate if our children cannot read well enough.''

The Congressionally mandated assessment was given in 1992 to 140,000 public and private school students across the country.

Although the testing program has been in place since 1969, this examination was the first to measure student progress against new, higher standards--a change that has led to controversy in testing circles. (See related story, page 17.) The purpose, in other words, was to gauge performance according to what students should be able to do, rather than how they did compared to an average.

Tougher Benchmarks

"In a sense,'' Mr. Riley said, "we have raised the bar and asked a great many students to jump over it without giving them any practice.''

For that reason, the report contains no information on whether students' reading achievement has improved or worsened. A separate study on student-achievement trends will be released early next year.

The new benchmarks, however, will be used as a baseline for measuring future progress.

They describe student performance according to three levels: basic, proficient, and advanced.

A majority of students--from 59 percent to 75 percent across all three grades--were able to read at the basic level or better.

At the basic level, 4th graders generally could understand simple narratives. For example, in a fictional story about Sybil, a young Colonial girl who rode her horse to warn of the approaching British army, they could determine that Sybil was courageous and a good rider.

However, only one-quarter of 4th graders, 28 percent of 8th graders, and 37 percent of 12th graders were judged to be reading proficiently.

This meant, for example, that 4th graders could understand the Sybil story in its historical context and answer questions that required some interpretation and consideration of subtleties in aspects of the stories.

Eighth graders reading at this level could make inferences about the ideas and feelings of characters and about implied themes in stories and poems. They could compare two passages representing different literary genres and use a document to solve simple problems.

Markedly fewer students, from 2 percent in 4th grade to 4 percent in high school, read at advanced levels.

On Teaching Reading

Also, in findings that are sure to heighten the already-bitter debate over the best way to teach reading, the study suggests some possible links between students' reading achievement and the type of reading instruction they are getting.

In grade 4, for example, students whose teachers said they had heavily emphasized literature-based approaches to teaching reading tended to do better on the assessment than students in classrooms where there was little or no attention paid to that approach.

Likewise, students who were poorer readers tended to get more phonics instruction in the classroom.

However, "you can't draw a cause-and-effect relationship,'' cautioned Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the International Reading Association. "It may be that phonics instruction is an artifact of how schools are organized or a feature of school remedial programs.''

Moreover, he added, poorer readers may be getting more phonics because their teachers believe they need additional instruction in that area.

The findings do, however, show that more teachers are using literature in their classrooms, integrating the teaching of reading and writing, and focusing on "whole language'' strategies for teaching reading. More than 80 percent of 4th-grade teachers said they had put at least moderate emphasis on those strategies. In comparison, only 61 percent of teachers said they had given phonics a similar emphasis.

Not surprisingly, the study also showed that students who watched more television and read less for pleasure were poorer readers. As many as one-fifth of 4th graders said they were watching six or more hours of television a day.

Based on that finding, Mr. Riley urged parents to "turn off the TV and spend some time with your child or children.''

The data also show that, at all three grade levels, girls outperformed boys.

Low Scores in California

One surprise in the study was the low performance of schoolchildren in California. That state in 1987 adopted a new framework for language-arts instruction that called for a significant shift from traditional approaches to teaching reading to newer, literature-based approaches. And 87 percent of California teachers, when asked by NAEP, said they had heavily emphasized the new approaches.

Yet, the average reading-proficiency scores of California's 4th graders were near the bottom on the assessment. Only the District of Columbia, Guam, Hawaii, Louisiana, and Mississippi had lower average scores.

Testing experts and California school officials said the poor performance may be due in part to demographics. The proportion of disadvantaged children in California--at 22 percent--is almost 2 1/2 times greater than that for the rest of the country. Nationwide, students from disadvantaged urban areas and extremely rural areas tended to have the lowest average reading proficiencies.

Moreover, 21 percent of California schoolchildren are not native speakers of English.

"It's really good for everybody to have good instruction but, when you have a state where there's high immigration and extreme poverty, it's really like David trying to fight Goliath,'' said Ina V.S. Mullis, who led the NAEP study, which was conducted by the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J.

However, Mark D. Musick, the chairman of the federal governing board that sets policy for NAEP, also pointed out that demographics do not entirely explain California students' reading-achievement problems. White students in California also performed near the bottom when compared with white students in other states.

"It wasn't just a matter of immigrants bringing down the higher scores,'' Mr. Musick said.

"Insufficient resources can also take their toll,'' said William D. Dawson, the state's acting superintendent of public instruction. He pointed out that state spending for education in California has dropped drastically over the last decade. The state now ranks 41st among states in per-pupil spending.

A Glaring Gap

Similarly, said Michael D. Nettles, a University of Michigan education professor, more information is needed to explain why black students read so poorly. Only 16 percent of black students were judged to be proficient readers, compared with 43 percent of white students, 39 percent of Asian students, and 21 percent of Hispanics.

"And in no state,'' Mr. Nettles pointed out, "did African-Americans perform as well as their white counterparts.''

In some jurisdictions, the gap was glaring. The District of Columbia's black students had scores that were among the lowest in the nation, while its white students scored at the top nationally.

"This tells us that African-Americans are doing poorly, but it does not tell us about home conditions or school quality,'' Mr. Nettles said.

The reading results come on the heels of another federal survey that suggests a widespread literacy problem. The Adult Literacy Survey, which was released this month, found that nearly half of all Americans--adults as well as older teenagers--cannot read, write, and calculate well enough to function in a changing and complex society. (See Education Week, Sept. 15, 1993.)

The NAEP report "indicates that we are producing yet another generation of poor readers who will not be prepared to enter the workforce,'' said William H. Kolberg, the president of the National Alliance of Business, which has long contended that American workers lack adequate literacy skills.

A total of 43 states or territories participated in the 1992 reading assessment. The 14 states with the highest average reading proficiency were: Connecticut, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

The report, "NAEP 1992 Reading Report Card for the Nation and the States,'' is available by writing: New Orders, Superintendent of Documents, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15250-7954. The price for the executive summary is $3; the full report is $20. The stock numbers, respectively, are 065-000-00598-1 and 065-000-00597-2.

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