Decline in Reading Level of 12th Graders Tracked
The reading skills of 12th graders declined slightly from 1992 to 1994, according to a federal report released last week, which warned that far too few students at any grade are reading at a proficient level.
Federal officials depicted the results in gloomy terms, saying at a press conference here that they were not what had been anticipated and that there was no immediate explanation for the drop.
The report was based on the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a Congressionally mandated survey that periodically tests national samples of students in core subjects. Based on an earlier report on trends in academic performance, federal officials had expected reading performance to remain flat or improve slightly. (See Education Week, 9/7/94.)
"The results of the 1994 naep reading report should serve as a wake-up call to Americans or, better yet, a whack on the head," said William T. Randall, the chairman of the governing board that oversees NAEP and the state commissioner of education in Colorado. "Reading--as a skill, as an information-gathering process, and as a recreation--is in serious trouble."
The assessment includes multiple-choice questions as well as ones that require students to write responses in their own words, ranging from a sentence or two to more than a paragraph. Students are asked to read for literary experience, to gain information, and to perform a task.
The reading scores of high school seniors declined by 5 points between 1992 and 1994, from 291 to 286 on a 500-point scale. The slight decline--which represents a difference smaller than one test item correct for the average student--should be taken seriously, officials said, given the weak performance of test-takers overall. The scores for students in grades 4 and 8 remained essentially flat.
The report found that only a quarter of 4th graders, slightly more 8th graders, and more than a third of 12th graders exhibited solid academic performance in reading. Across all three grades, fewer than 5 percent reached the "advanced" level, representing superior performance. At least 30 percent at each grade failed to reach the "basic" level, representing only partial mastery of skills.
The three achievement levels--basic, proficient, and advanced--are set by the National Assessment Governing Board to reflect expert judgment about what students should know and be able to do at specific grade levels.
Emerson J. Elliott, the U.S. commissioner of education statistics, said the most plausible explanation for the decline was changes in reading instruction and activities. Between 1992 and 1994, he noted, the percentage of 12th graders who reported reading 11 or more pages a day for homework or in school declined from 45 percent to 39 percent. The proportion that reported reading five or fewer pages daily increased from 31 percent to 36 percent.
In the fall, federal officials will release a more complete analysis, with additional findings on home and school factors that may contribute to reading achievement.
But officials said one thing is obvious: Schools need to pay more attention to reading from the early grades on. "Put simply, for students to read well they have to read a lot," said James E. Ellingson, a 4th-grade teacher from Moorhead, Minn., and a member of the NAEP governing board. He said schools should devise prescriptive, one-to-one instructional plans for children who are not reading successfully by the end of 1st grade.
The International Reading Association, a professional group of nearly 100,000 reading teachers and specialists, used the release of the report to criticize school systems for hiring unqualified aides instead of trained reading specialists at what the group said is a rate of two to one. The group also decried budget cuts in professional development, book purchasing, and libraries.
The new naep study marks the second time that the national assessment has reported reading achievement by state. A total of 41 jurisdictions participated in the state trial assessment of reading achievement in grade 4.
Preliminary results show the average reading performance of 4th graders declined in 10 states that participated in the assessments in both 1992 and 1994. No state had average reading performance at the proficient level.
In other findings:
- Among 12th graders tested, male and female students and white, black, and Hispanic students all registered significant drops in reading performance as groups. The reading scores of Hispanic 4th graders also declined 10 points, from 202 to 192.
- In 1994, students attending nonpublic schools at all three grade levels displayed higher average reading proficiency than their counterparts in the public schools.
- Across all three grades, girls scored significantly higher than boys.
- Reading proficiency on average was higher for students whose parents had more education. The only group of 12th graders whose reading scores did not decline significantly were those who reported that at least one parent had graduated from college.
More information on the report, "1994 NAEP Reading: A First Look, Findings From the National Assessment of Educational Progress," is available from the National Library of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Education Department, 555 New Jersey Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20208-5641; (800) 424-1616.