Reading Skills Up but Leveling Off, Report Finds

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Washington--American schoolchildren generally were reading better in 1984 than they were in 1971, but the upward trend among younger students has leveled off in the past four years, and black and Hispanic youngsters still trail whites by a significant margin, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported last week.

The Reading Report Card: Progress Toward Excellence in Our Schools, released at a press conference here, examines changes in reading achievement based on tests taken by a representative sample of public- and private-school students in 1970-71, 1974-75, 1979-80, and 1983-84.

Between 1980 and 1984, the reading scores of 17-year-olds rose for the first time in more than a decade, primarily due to a greater proportion of students having mastered basic and mid-level reading skills, assessment officials said.

Black and Hispanic children made the greatest gains over the entire 13-year-period, narrowing the gap in reading proficiency between themselves and white students.

Test scores of students in the Southeast and Midwest also drew closer to those of children from other areas of the country.

However, the scores of 9- and 13-year-old students, which had been rising steadily during the 1970's, leveled off between 1980 and 1984. Among white students, the only group to improve significantly since 1980 was 17-year-olds.

And students continued to do poorly on complex reading tasks, with fewer than 5 percent of 17-year-olds having mastered the most advanced reading skills.

Minority Gap

Moreover, the gap between minority and nonminority test scores remains wide.

The proportion of black 9-year-olds who failed to demonstrate the least complex reading skills--such as answering factual questions based on a few simple sentences--shrank from 30 percent to 16 percent over the course of the four assessments.

But by 1984, the average black and Hispanic 17-year-old still was reading only slightly better than the average white 13-year-old.

Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, in remarks made at the press conference, said, "The bad news is as strong as the good. Our progress in reading is commendable, but our overall performance still isn't sufficient."

Closing the gap between minority and nonminority scores, in particular, is "one of the foremost challenges to American education in the late 80's," Mr. Bennett said.

naep, a Congressionally mandated assessment program funded by the Education Department, has been measuring attainment in reading and other subjects since 1969.

It is the only regularly conducted national survey of educational achievement among schoolchildren in grades K-12. Since 1983, it has been administered by the Educational Testing Service.

Illiteracy Exaggerated

At the very least, the trend data "do not support the position that large percentages of Americans are illiterate," the report states.

Virtually all 13- and 17-year-olds can read basic material, it notes, and 84 percent of 17-year-olds still in school can understand specific and general information in relatively lengthy reading passages.

The nation's approximately 500,000 17-year-old dropouts were not included in the survey. But naep officials said the jump in scores among 17-year-olds was not due to the exclusion of those students, since the dropout rate has held fairly steady over the past five years.

Archie E. Lapointe, executive director of naep, said the data prove that "if we as a society and as an educational system pay attention to8certain tasks--like improving basic skills, like improving the performance of disadvantaged groups--we can be successful."

Higher-Level Skills

But he cautioned that some 6 percent of 9-year-olds, or 184,000 children, still have not mastered even the most essential reading skills, leaving these children at risk of future school failure.

And both Secretary Bennett and ets officials expressed concerns that large proportions of youngsters may have insufficient skills to handle much of the material studied at their grade level.

Forty percent of 13-year-olds and 16 percent of 17-year-olds still lack the skills required to interrelate ideas and make generalizations, the study found--skills that Mr. Bennett said are needed to do well in middle and junior-high school. And 55 percent of white, 80 percent of Hispanic, and 84 percent of black 17-year-olds probably have difficulty reading high-school textbooks.

'Surprising and Disappointing'

One of the most "surprising" and "disappointing" findings in the survey, according to Richard C. Anderson, director of the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois and chairman of the National Commission on Reading, was the leveling off of improvement among 9- and 13-year-old students.

Mr. Lapointe said he did not know why the upward trend had halted. But Gregory R. Anrig, president of the ets, speculated that the lack of progress reflects a shift in attention away from elementary schools and toward high schools in the late 1970's.

The data raise questions about the educational system's ability to focus on a number of priorities simultaneously, Mr. Anrig said, such as on both elementary and high schools, basic and higher-order learning skills, or advantaged and disadvantaged students.

No Further Improvements

The report cautioned that "if the patterns of no further improvements for 9- and 13-year-olds are reflected in future assessments," American schools may maintain the advances of the 1970's, but will go no further.

Similarly, without additional interventions the substantial gains that black 17-year-olds have made in the past seem likely to level off after one more assessment, the report said.

Only Hispanic students show a continuing pattern of improvement, it concluded.

Reflect Earlier Gains

naep officials said higher test scores among 17-year-olds in the last four years may reflect the maintenance of earlier gains by 9- and 13-year-olds.

The enthusiasm and attention surrounding the growth of Head Start and other federal programsduring the 1960's and 70's gave these children an advantage that has paid off, the officials said.

They added that calls for high-school reform in the 1970's and early 80's also may have contributed to the upward trend.

But Mr. Lapointe argued that the latest naep survey occurred too soon after the release of A Nation at Risk for that report and the educational changes that ensued to have had an effect on the results.

Reading Levels

One of the major changes in the most recent assessment was the division of test scores into five "reading levels"--rudimentary, basic, intermediate, adept, and advanced--to make the data more accessible to the public.

The change enabled naep officials to compare the reading ability of students of different ages on the same scale. In order to compare results over time, officials rescored the results of previous assessments.

But some researchers, including John C. Manning, president of the International Reading Association, and Ralph Tyler, one of the creators of naep, have suggested that the scale may oversimplify the reading process.

Mr. Lapointe conceded that the scale is not a "precise measure" of students' reading skills, but he said the alternatives--describing whether students can read grade-level textbooks or understand The New York Times--were even less informative.

Other Findings

The naep report also included the following findings:

Reading achievement generally rose in low-income urban and rural communities from 1971 to 1984, but changed little in affluent urban communities.

The reading proficiency of males trailed that of females, with the gap narrowing slightly over 13 years.

Students' ability to find and use resource materials improved significantly between 1980 and 1984, while their literal and inferential comprehension remained about the same.

Six or more hours of television per day is consistently and strongly related to lower reading proficiency. In 1984, 27 percent of 9-year-olds reported watching more than six hours of television daily, up from 18 percent four years earlier.

Students who receive homework assignments and do them read better in general than those who do not have homework or do not do it.

Vol. 05, Issue 04

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