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Based on the results of a 1988 test of 100,000 elementary, middle, and high school students, NAEP found that students at ages 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 what little improvement there was took place, for the most part, in the 1970's, before the recent round of intensive school reform, according to the NAEP report. And 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 read at the advanced level required for college, business, and technical work-- 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 were able to write adequately on five of the six tasks assigned.

Cavazos said the 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. "I have said it repeatedly; our educational system must be restructured. We need a revolution in teaching and learning.''

Archie Lapointe, NAEP's executive director, said the gains that did take place reflect the national movement to improve basic skills and the 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,'' Lapointe said, "schools can achieve them.''

The reports 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. NAEP is currently operated by the Educational Testing Service under contract to the U.S. Education Department.

The reading report shows that 17year-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, notes Emerson 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 says, black performance might have been expected to decline.

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-yearolds 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.

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-yearolds demonstrating basic reading skills and strategies has declined significantly throughout the 1980's.

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-- almost a third fewer than in 1971-- could apply the skills needed to comprehend the kinds of specialized materials prevalent in higher education and business.

"Whether they are in or out of school,'' the report states, "17-yearolds 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.''

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 shows 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.

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.

--Robert Rothman, Education Week

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