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NAEP Reading Scores: Progress Mixed With Decline

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Web Extra! Reading achievement among the nation's 4th graders—including the lowest-performing of those students—is showing signs of progress after a decade of state and federal initiatives to improve instruction in the early grades.

But the performance of older students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, is not so promising, with the scores of 8th graders stagnating over the past four years and those of 12th graders declining, according to the latest results released here June 19.

"There is reason to celebrate and reason for concern," U.S. Undersecretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok said at a press conference held to announce the results.

The assessment, often called "the nation's report card," was given January through March of 2002 to more than 270,000 students, including a nationally representative sample of 4th, 8th, and 12th graders. Also included was a sample of 4th and 8th graders tested in most states, as well as other U.S. jurisdictions. The reading NAEP was last given at all three grade levels in 1998, and only to 4th graders in 2000. The test of reading comprehension required students to read passages that included fictional stories, newspaper articles, and text from print materials they might encounter every day, such as bus schedules. They were then asked questions that required multiple-choice or short written answers.

In 2002, 4th graders nationwide scored an average 219 on a 500-point scale, a 6-point increase over the 2000 test, but just a 2-point improvement—not considered statistically significant—since this test was first given in 1992. Eighth graders scored an average 264 points in 2002, essentially the same as in 1998. High school seniors turned in an average score of 287, a small, but statistically significant drop from 1998, and a 5-point drop from a decade ago.

Still, the lowest-performing 4th graders-those scoring in the bottom 10th percentile-made an 11-point leap, the largest in performance, since 2000. The average score for 8th graders in the bottom 10th percentile climbed 4 points in 2002. High school seniors in all percentiles turned in lower scores.

"The results for black, white, and Hispanic, and [low-income] children ... are up because of a very intentional effort in some states across the nation at the very early grades," said Mark D. Musick, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, or NAGB, which sets policy for NAEP. "Could these results be a blip? Perhaps, but I see them as a turnaround."

Gap Narrows

The proportion of students who can demonstrate what the governing board has defined as "basic" skills in reading comprehension rose at the two lower grade levels as well. Almost two-thirds of 4th graders and three-fourths of 8th graders reached the "basic" level, or demonstrated "partial mastery of the knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at a given grade," according to the report. About a third of 4th graders and 8th graders scored at the "proficient" level, meaning they could show mastery over the challenging subject matter on the test. The percentage of 12th graders that could demonstrate basic skills dipped from 76 percent in 1998 to 74 percent in 2002.

The gap in achievement between black and Hispanic 4th graders and their white peers has narrowed somewhat in the past few years. While white students' scores rose 5 points in 2002, to an average 229, black students' performance improved by 9 points, to 199, and Hispanic students' scores increased 11 points, to 201, since 2000, the last time the test was given to a national sample of 4th graders.

Several states saw dramatic improvements in reading achievement among their 4th and 8th graders. Delaware was most improved, as 4th graders produced a 17-point increase since 1998, the most recent year in which individual states were assessed under NAEP, and 8th graders' scores jumped 13 points. Florida, Missouri, and Washington state also showed significant improvement for both 4th and 8th graders.

Exclusions Grow

Results in those states, however, could be tempered by the exclusion of larger numbers of students with disabilities and those whose English is limited from the test-taking.

"Since students with disabilities or limited-English-proficient students tend to score below average on assessments, excluding students with special needs may increase a jurisdiction's scores," the report says. "Conversely, including more of these students might depress score gains."

In Delaware, for example, 8 percent of the students identified as having disabilities or limited English proficiency were omitted from the test-taking in 2002. In 1998, however, just 1 percent of those students weren't tested. But in California, a state in which sizable numbers of students do not speak English well, just 5 percent of those 4th graders were not included in the 2002 NAEP, significantly fewer than the 14 percent in 1998. The state's average score at that grade level rose several points, but the gain is not considered statistically significant.

Officials with the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics who analyzed the data, and looked closely at Delaware's improvement, said there is currently no indication, however, that the exclusion rates had significantly affected the scores. And Peggy G. Carr, the associate commissioner of the NCES, said no consistent correlation exists between states' scores and exclusion rates. The governing board is studying the impact of excluded students further. ("NAEP Exclusion Rates Continue to Bedevil Policymakers," May 28, 2003.)

Despite the improvement in California, the state still languishes at the bottom of the state list, with its 4th graders performing better than their counterparts in just Arizona, the District of Columbia, Guam, Mississippi, and the Virgin Islands.

Massachusetts, meanwhile, had the best average score among 4th graders, with 234 points, followed by Connecticut and Vermont. At the 8th grade level, Vermont (272) and the U.S. Department of Defense's domestic and overseas schools had the highest average scores, followed closely by Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, and Nebraska.

Several states in the South, which have traditionally scored at the bottom on national comparisons, also saw improvement. Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia had big gains in either the 4th or 8th grade.

The lackluster performance of the nation's high school seniors has been the subject of much speculation and concern among NAGB members. The governing board has launched a study, overseen by Mr. Musick, to look at potential causes for such disappointing results. He and others have suggested that 12th graders who take the test in the last semester of school and realize it has no bearing on their academic status have little motivation for taking the test seriously.

A report on a trial project to gauge reading achievement among students in six urban districts- Atlanta, Chicago, the District of Columbia, Houston, Los Angeles, and New York City-is scheduled for release July 1. The results of the 2002 NAEP writing test are due out later next month, while the results of the 2003 NAEP in reading and mathematics are expected in the fall. The results of the tests given earlier this year are the first to fall under the federal "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001, which requires that the exams in those key subjects be given every two years.

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