Students Read Little In or Out of School, NAEP Survey Finds

By Robert Rothman — June 03, 1992 6 min read

The results are “cause for concern,’' the report states, “because writing can be a powerful tool for enhancing thinking and learning.’'

In what President Bush called “troubling statistics,’' the National Assessment of Educational Progress last week reported that U.S. students do very little reading in or out of school.

In a report issued here, based on a 1990 survey of 25,000 students, NAEP found that 45 percent of 4th graders, 63 percent of 8th graders, and 59 percent of 12th graders read 10 pages or fewer per day for school. And, it found, the students reported less daily reading than students did in 1988.

Outside school, the study found, nearly a third of 8th and 12th graders said they never read for fun, and 22 percent of the high-school seniors said they do not have homework assigned or do not do it.

The NAEP study also showed that there is a wide gap between research findings on effective reading instruction and the practices of most classrooms.

Perhaps as a result, the study also showed that most students have difficulty going beyond a general understanding of a written passage to discuss and explain what they have read.

“We talk a big story about reform,’' said Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the International Reading Association. “But I am reminded of the Hans Christian Andersen story, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’''

“We have all these test results, but we don’t spend nearly enough on how to improve instruction,’' he said.

President Bush, speaking at the Mount Paran Christian School in Marietta, Ga., the day before the report was formally released, said its findings show that the nation has “a long way to go’’ to improve students’ reading performance.

Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander said, however, that the report suggests that there are relatively simple and low-cost solutions to the problem.

Parents, he said, should read to their children every night, should get them library cards, and should limit television viewing, and teachers should encourage students to write more and talk more about what they read.

“We would like children to read more and to read better,’' he said at a press conference here. “We’re perfectly capable of doing whatever we need to do’’ to achieve that goal.

Low Expectations

A Congressionally mandated project, NAEP has since 1969 tested a national sample of students in reading, writing, mathematics, and other subjects. It is conducted by the Educational Testing Service under contract to the Education Department.

A report issued earlier this year, “Trends in Academic Progress,’' showed that student performance in reading in 1990 was roughly at the same level it was in 1971. (See Education Week, Oct. 2, 1991.)

The new report was based on a separate assessment conducted in 1988 and 1990, which reflects changes in curriculum and testing techniques. Its results cannot be compared with the earlier findings.

But the new study also contains a wealth of data on student backgrounds and instructional practices. These data provide a snapshot of America’s classrooms, and will enable researchers to determine factors that are associated with high and low levels of achievement.

The study found that, despite research evidence about the effectiveness of discussions, writing, and group projects related to reading, most classrooms continue to rely on textbooks and workbooks.

Nearly all--92 percent--of the 12th graders said they read textbooks for school assignments at least weekly. Assignments from newspapers and magazines, novels, poems, and stories, and dictionaries and encyclopedias were given much less frequently, it found.

Mr. Farstrup of the reading association said that the “overreliance’’ on textbooks and workbooks is particularly prevalent among low-performing students.

“That suggests to me we don’t have high expectations for those students,’' he said. “We get what we expect.’'

Little Reading, Writing

But even with the heavy use of textbooks, the study found, students read relatively few pages each day in school or for homework.

In both 1988 and 1990, it found, more than half of the 8th- and 12th-grade students said they read 10 or fewer pages a day, and students in the upper grades tended to read fewer pages than 4th graders. But, the study found, those who read more than 20 pages each day performed substantially better on the reading assessment than did those who read 5 or fewer pages a day.

The study also found that the majority of students engaged in some form of discussion about their reading. But the discussion focused more often on vocabulary than on explaining or interpreting what they read. And a fourth of the 4th graders, a fifth of the 8th graders, and a tenth of the 12th graders said they never discussed what they read.

In addition, the study found, at grades 8 and 12, no more than a fourth of the students said they wrote reports about their reading at least weekly, and a third said they never wrote reports or did so infrequently.

But, the report notes, students who wrote reports with moderate frequency tended to outperform those who wrote them often, as well as students who never wrote reports.

“It may be,’' the report states, “that for poorer readers, teachers tend either to give more short assignments or fewer long assignments.’'

Time Watching TV

In examining reading outside the classroom, the study found that 4th graders appeared to read after school less often in 1990 than they did in 1988, while those in the upper grades tended to do more outside reading.

At the same time, the proportion of students in the upper grades who said they never read for fun increased sharply, to 30 percent of the 8th graders and 29 percent of the 12th graders.

Asked to explain the apparent discrepancy, Mary A. Foertsch, the report’s author, suggested that the older students may be doing more “functional’’ reading, such as reading television schedules, rather than leisure reading.

In addition, the report found that students spend relatively little time on homework, and that the more they do, the better they tend to perform on the reading assessment.

A third of the 4th graders, and a fifth of the 8th and 12th graders, said they spend half an hour or less each day on homework.

Similarly, the study found, students in the upper grades tend to use the library infrequently. Only 25 percent of the 8th graders and 12 percent of the high-school seniors said they took books out of the library at least weekly.

In contrast with the relatively little time spent on outside reading and homework, the study found that students tend to spend considerably more time watching television, although the amount of television viewing appears to have dropped between 1988 and 1990.

Nevertheless, in 1990, 62 percent of the 4th graders, 64 percent of the 8th graders, and 40 percent of the 12th graders said they watched three hours or more of television a day.

“It is not one of our education goals that we be first in the world in the amount of TV that we watch, although it is one we are close to reaching,’' said Secretary Alexander.

‘Cause for Concern’

In addition to surveying students’ backgrounds and classroom activities, the 1990 assessment included six questions designed to determine the extent of students’ understanding of what they read by providing them with opportunities to think and write about reading passages.

Three questions were based on stories, two on expository pieces, and one on a document.

For example, students in 4th grade were asked to fill out a magazine-subscription form; students in 12th grade were asked to read a historical piece about the World War II Allied mission to Archangel and to describe why the mission failed.

Over all, the results show, students showed some understanding of what they read, but many were unable to explain it or to elaborate on their explanations. For example, on the Archangel task, two-thirds of the students constructed vague answers or offered inadequate support for their answers.

The results are “cause for concern,’' the report states, “because writing can be a powerful tool for enhancing thinking and learning.’'

Copies of the report, “Reading In and Out of School,’' are available for $3.75 each from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Mail Stop: SSOP, Washington, D.C. 20402-9328. The stock number is 065-000-00-501-8.

A version of this article appeared in the June 03, 1992 edition of Education Week as Students Read Little In or Out of School, NAEP Survey Finds