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Report Examines Influences on Reading Skills

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The home and school lives of U.S. 12th graders appear to have been less supportive of reading skills in 1994 than in 1992, a new federal report concludes.

The report also shows private school students outperforming public students in reading in most states for which comparisons were possible, but it urges caution in interpreting those results.

The Department of Education last week released the in-depth "report card" of results from the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading. It fleshes out last April's "first look" report, which indicated that reading skills of 12th graders had declined significantly between 1992 and 1994, while the performance of 4th and 8th graders remained essentially the same. (See Education Week, May 3, 1995.)

Since 1969, the assessment has tested a sampling of students in a variety of academic subjects.

Although conclusions about cause and effect cannot be drawn from such data, last week's report offers insight into how some aspects of students' lives may influence reading proficiency.

At all three grade levels tested in 1994, the students who reported that they read for fun almost every day demonstrated the highest average reading proficiency--an average score of 302 for 12th graders, for example.

The proficiency scores are presented on a scale of 0 to 500. The average score nationally was 287 for 12th graders, 260 for 8th graders, and 214 for 4th graders.

In 1994, 12th graders reported reading for fun less frequently and having fewer home discussions about their school studies than their counterparts in 1992. High school seniors in 1994 also reported fewer reading materials in their homes and said they were reading fewer pages for school and homework each day than 12th graders had in 1992. All these factors are statistically linked to reading scores.

In a statement issued with the report, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley renewed the call he made last month for parents to pay more attention to their children's learning by spending 30 minutes more with them each day.

Public vs. Private

For the first time, the new report card gives a state-by-state breakdown on the performance of students in public and nonpublic schools. In 15 of the 22 states for which comparisons could be made, students in private schools scored an average of 24 points higher than those in public schools.

However, the report warns that the variable quality and quantity of the data leave a wide margin of error for results from many of the states. In seven states, the results were not conclusive enough to say which group of students performed better. (See chart, this page.)

The report also cautions that the composition of the student body, parents' education levels, and parental interest may play a significant role in the differences in the performance of private and public school students.

Also, for the first time in a widely circulated NAEP document, the report card outlines differences in the performance of students in particular racial and ethnic groups in relation to their parents' education levels.

At the 12th grade, reading proficiency increased for all students as the level of their parents' education increased. But having parents who were college graduates did not erase the disparity in reading skills among racial groups. Among students with college-graduate parents, whites had an average score of 302, while Hispanics averaged 283 and blacks 272.

For black students, what seemed to make the most difference in reading scores was whether their parents had some education beyond high school.

But the report says the findings about achievement and parent education run somewhat counter to results from the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988 and the Scholastic Assessment Test, which found achievement differences among the races shrank when analysts accounted for other socioeconomic factors, such as family income. The report urges that the NAEP findings "be interpreted carefully."

Copies of the "NAEP 1994 Reading Report Card for the Nation and the States" may be ordered from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Mailstop SSOP, Washington, D.C. 20402-9328; (202) 512-1800. The price was not available last week.

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