A Glimpse at the States With Big NAEP Gains

March 10, 1999 7 min read

The following states are among those that posted the biggest gains on the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading. For the profiles below, Education Week asked policymakers to suggest possible reasons for their states’ improved performance.

These selections were based primarily on the percentage increase in the number of 4th graders who reached the “proficient” level or higher from 1992 to 1998. Changes between 1994 and 1998 as well as increases in the scale scores from 1992 to 1998 were also considered.

Displayed inside each state box is the percentage of 4th grade pupils who scored at or above proficient in 1992 and in 1998.

1992 34% 1998 46%

Connecticut’s significant gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test follow a deliberate attempt by state policymakers to improve student literacy skills through rigorous assessments and targeted aid.

The Constitution State put itself at the vanguard of the academic-standards movement in the mid-1980s when it set a high bar for students with the implementation of the Connecticut Mastery Tests. Given in reading, writing, and mathematics in grades 4, 6, and 8, the exams have effectively pushed districts to improve. The percentage of Connecticut 4th graders meeting the state’s goal on the reading section, for example, rose from 44.6 percent in 1993 to 54.4 percent last year.

Connecticut has recently become increasingly concerned with raising the reading scores of its urban students, particularly those in its 14 so-called priority districts--the state’s poorest and most urban school systems. The state began stipulating two years ago that at least 20 percent of the additional $19 million it gives annually to priority districts be used for early reading-intervention programs.

And last year, the state began allocating about another $20 million a year for an urban schools grant program to finance literacy-improvement efforts in the early grades. Connecticut also required that all grantees prepare three-year plans for raising their students’ reading performance.

The grant program in recent months has spawned myriad district initiatives--including summer schools, “Saturday academies,” and teacher-training centers--aimed at helping students improve their reading skills.

“These strong gains show the value of emphasizing reading skills through focused instruction and assessment,” said Commissioner of Education Theodore S. Sergi. Despite a narrowing gap, he cautioned that urban schools are still being outperformed by those in the state’s wealthier communities. “Our challenges continue to be the achievement of students from families in poverty and of black and Hispanic students who reside in our largest cities,” he said.

--Jeff Archer

1992 25% 1998 34%

Colorado’s 4th grade reading scores have risen over the past four years without any specific literacy initiative.

Instead, according to the state education commissioner, Colorado has methodically followed a model of systemic reform. It has set standards and crafted assessments to measure how well students are learning.

“To our mind, it’s obvious that our efforts in standards-based education and the rigorous standards-based [state] assessment” are the reason behind the improved showing on the national assessment, Commissioner William J. Moloney said last week.

On the 1998 test, Colorado students scored 9 points higher than four years earlier, recovering from a 4-point dip on NAEP’s 500-point scale between 1992 and 1994.

Also on last year’s test, 34 percent of the students ranked at or above “proficient” or “advanced"--the two highest achievement levels. That compares with only 25 percent who scored at those levels in 1992.

Not all the news is as impressive, however. In 1998, 4th grade reading scores were about the same as the tests’ debut in 1997. But one-third of the schools in the state did show improvements, and many serving low-income or minority students are showing “dramatic progress,” Mr. Moloney said.

Such results have created the incentive for the laggards to improve, he added.

“When the district or school next to you ... is moving ahead and you’re not, you better have a good explanation,” he said. “Success models are being replicated throughout the state.”

--David J. Hoff

1992 23% 1998 29%

For education leaders in Kentucky, the scores from the “nation’s report card” for last year show that the state’s schools are on the right track despite recent detours.

Almost a decade into one of the most ambitious and comprehensive statewide school reforms in the country, 1998 reading results on the national assessment suggest that Kentucky’s students are raising their achievement faster than other states’.

Kentucky is one of only three states whose 4th grade scores last year were significantly higher than in 1992 and 1994--the only two other times the current NAEP test has been given.

After placing about 2 points below the national average on NAEP’s scale score in 1992, Kentucky is now 4 points above it.

To be ranked above the national average is especially significant, Commissioner of Education Wilmer S. Cody said, because the state’s poverty levels are above average and its adult educational achievement is below average. Those factors suggest that the odds would be against the state’s students to beat the mean, Mr. Cody said at a Washington news conference where the the state-by-state results were released.

While Kentucky has actively worked to improve its schools since 1990, two changes since 1994 may have boosted its NAEP scores, he added.

The state revised its reading standards to specify what teachers need to do in the classroom, and it has increased the amount of time students spend writing. The latter decision was based on research that shows the more students write, the better they do on reading tests.

“Kentucky’s improvement over its earlier achievement and the major progress being made by some schools within Kentucky on other measures provide the encouragement that we can do better,” Mr. Cody said.

--David J. Hoff

1992 24% 1998 29%

Maryland education officials credit the state’s 8-year-old assessment system with raising standards and improving instruction, and ultimately ensuring that more students gain proficiency in reading.

The Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, launched in 1991, has been the cornerstone of the state’s broader plan to make schools more accountable for student achievement.

After a 1-point drop in the scale score on the NAEP reading test between 1992 and 1994, the performance of Maryland’s 4th graders improved by 5 points, matching the national average of 215. The proportion of students able to read at the “basic” level or above has risen from 57 percent in 1992 to 61 percent in 1998. The percentage of the state’s African-American and Hispanic students reading at least at the “proficient” level also improved by several percentage points. But with little more than one in 10 black students and fewer than one in five Hispanic students reading proficiently, according to the latest national report card, the state has a long way to go, said Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent.

“We are pleased about the upward trend and very pleased that we have impacted some of our lower-performing students,” Ms. Grasmick said last week. “While some of our reforms have had a chance to take hold, we’re just in the infancy stage of others.”

Beginning next year, new teachers at every grade level will be required to have taken at least nine courses in reading instruction--much higher than the one or two classes most preservice programs require. The state education department has also formed a partnership with Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to help translate reading research into practice.

--Kathleen Kennedy Manzo

1992 24% 1998 29%

Texas’ statewide reading initiative and its nationally recognized standards and assessments are still too new to have had a significant impact on reading achievement, state officials say. But an intense focus on instruction in the early-elementary grades, backed by more state and federal funding, has started to improve reading achievement.

“We’re creating a positive environment for change,” said Robin M. Gilchrist, the assistant commissioner for the Texas Education Agency’s statewide reading initiative. “It is tempting to say that [the improvement] is because of the reading initiative,” she said, but it has not yet had enough time to take hold.

The state adopted new language arts standards last year, and began allocating more money from its federal Goals 2000 grants for local reading initiatives. The districts implementing such programs have already exhibited more improvement on state assessments in reading than the general school population has, Ms. Gilchrist said.

The Lone Star State has seen steady progress on the NAEP reading test. On the latest report card, 63 percent of 4th graders performed at the “basic” level or better, 6 percentage points higher than the sampling of students who took the test in 1992. Minority students in the state also performed better on the test, but did not close the gap with their white peers. While 43 percent of the state’s white 4th graders were at or above the “proficient” level on the test, only 11 percent of African-American and 15 percent of Hispanic students were able to demonstrate proficiency.

--Kathleen Kennedy Manzo

A version of this article appeared in the March 10, 1999 edition of Education Week as A Glimpse at the States With Big NAEP Gains