An Open Letter to the President On Reading Tests and Standards

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Having 'every 8-year-old read' is a little too simple.

Having read with some care your February State of the Union Address and the speech you gave before the Michigan legislature in March, I confess myself delighted that you share not just my high opinion of the importance of reading but the same high value placed on reading by most educators and parents. Thank you for bringing it up before Congress and the nation.

But there are a few problems associated with the goal you have stated--"Every 8-year-old must be able to read"--and with your plan for the U.S. Department of Education to develop a reading test that will determine whether every student in the land is meeting national standards in reading. (The reading test won't be mandated by the federal government, you say, but "by 1999 every state should test every 4th grader.")

I understand, Mr. President, that you are something of a "policy wonk." Certainly, this reading test and standards policy need some wonking. Having "every 8-year-old read" is a little too simple.

Your first problem is to define what you mean by "be able to read." We could probably agree that most 4th graders can't read every word in a daily newspaper. So the problem becomes, how many words should they be able to read? Stated more generally, for any reading test, the standards problem is "How many test items should students get correct in order to meet some national standard? And what should the items look like?"

This is really the practical core of the standards problem. Standards work pretty well in math, or spelling, or geography, where a finite body of knowledge can be specified. Can a student correctly add three four-digit numbers? Can he or she correctly spell the 1,000 most common words by the end of the 4th grade? Can a student fill in a map naming all 50 states?

But when it comes to reading, setting standards is more formidable. For example, can a 4th grader read a story like "Peter Rabbit" and understand it? Well, what do we mean by "understand"? What's the main idea of "Peter Rabbit"? (not a very sensible question). Is the story of Peter Rabbit an allegory? (not too good for 4th grade). Does Mr. MacGregor like Peter? (a little simplistic).

Well, you get the idea. It is more difficult to have national standards for reading. Of course, it won't hurt to try to set some standards. It might even help a little. But let's not take this reading-standards idea too seriously.

Just a year or two ago, the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English wrestled with the problem of setting reading standards, and some of us think the problem threw them to the mat. The Education Department even withdrew funds from the project, and I applaud them for having the good judgment to do so.

You see, one way to set standards is to get a lot of experts to sit around a table, or their computer keyboards, and say, "I think a 4th grader should be able to do this or that." Since experts don't usually agree on many particular things, much argumentation and many revisions are necessary. The results are fuzzy, or compromised, "standards," and they often contain little that test makers, or curriculum developers, or classroom teachers can use.

The other way to set standards is to give a reading test, standardize it on some population like a random sample of all U.S. 4th graders, and say anybody below some point, such as the 40th percentile, needs to be brought above that point. Since both methods of establishing a "national standard" have their policy and real-life difficulties, I say don't take the idea of "national standards" too seriously, certainly not as an absolute for every student or every school.

There is another very basic idea you must grasp, and that is that most human abilities follow a normal distribution curve.

Incidentally, you and Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley sometimes publicly state the headline-grabbing statistic that some 44 percent of 4th graders don't even come up to a "basic reading level." Let me point out that a "basic level" is merely the subjective opinion of some unnamed group of "experts." It is sort of a "wouldn't it be nice if they could" basic level of achievement. It is not a condemnation of public education that a large group of students can't do what some experts just thought up as a new "basic standard."

There is another very basic idea you must grasp, and that is that most human abilities follow a normal distribution curve. This means that any group of children or adults have different amounts of most any ability; the ability to throw a basketball accurately, to play the saxophone, to grasp mathematical concepts, or to "read." Some people play the saxophone better than you do (excuse me), some play it about as well, and some play it worse.

I know that you have publicly visited some elementary schools, and this has served the valuable purpose of showing your concern for education. If you have time to leave the Oval Office once again and go into the nearest 4th grade, though, you will find quite a range of reading ability. You won't have to call up the Education Department for a test, just take in the daily newspaper and ask every kid to read a few short paragraphs aloud. This could be more revealing than an hour-long Cabinet meeting or a one-hour session with national reading experts in demonstrating the range of reading ability found in every classroom.

On a more technical level, the fact that reading ability follows a normal distribution curve is quite well known. You can look at the test data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress or any standardized test. This simple statistical fact causes all sorts of trouble when we report reading achievement in grade-level scores. A grade level on a standardized test is really a description of what is average (normal) for a 4th grader. It is usually a little broader than just a midpoint exact score, but still it is a small range of scores right around the midpoint. So in a typical district, or a typical county, or a typical state, many students in 4th grade are near the average or midpoint and they get a 4th grade score. But some students don't read too well and score a little below--we say they have 3rd grade reading ability because they score like average 3rd graders. A few of the 4th grade students are really lousy readers and they score like 2nd graders or even 1st graders. Conversely, some good readers score like 5th graders, and a few score like 6th graders or even better.

We usually don't get very excited about 4th graders who read like 5th or 6th graders but, oh boy, when we see scores of 4th graders who read like 3rd graders, or even like 2nd graders or 1st graders, then it's cause for alarm--or at least curriculum reform, or a push for thousands of volunteers flooding into our schools. You can pick any point on the reading continuum you like, such as your 40th percentile or the 3rd grade midpoint, or any place else, and you will still have some children ahead of that point and some below. This will occur either before or after special programs.

When you get beyond the nice-sounding generalities, the whole test and standards proposition comes down to some very real, practical difficulties.

Mr. President, I hate to tell you this, but even the president of the United States can't get rid of the normal distribution curve by making speeches or appropriating money. You can't get rid of it with phonics or whole-language instruction, with more tutors, or with computers in every classroom.

This does not mean that better methods, or better teachers, or more tutors won't help. And after all, doing something is better than doing nothing or just accepting the status quo.

It is a great goal to have every child reading, but you can't just take the bottom half of any large population and get it in the top half of the normal distribution curve. In fact, you can't even take the bottom 25 percent and get it above the 40th percentile. Oh, it has been tried many times. Perhaps your Education Department has records that go back just a few years to the federally funded Right To Read Program.

Please don't get me wrong. I am not opposed to putting more money and effort into reading instruction. I welcome anything that can be done to improve our population's reading ability. But what I am trying to bring to this policy-wonk discussion is an appreciation of the fact that there are serious problems in having a national reading standard and hoping or trying to get "every 8-year-old" to meet that "standard." When you get beyond the nice-sounding generalities, the whole test and standards proposition comes down to these very real, practical difficulties:

1. What do the test items look like? (difficulty, type, or content?)

2. How many of those items should an 8-year-old be able to read?

3. What percentage of the 8-year-olds should read those items?

There is one further problem that bothers me, and that is your hope to cure much of the reading problem by using volunteer tutors. Getting a million people to work for a year or two for nothing might be difficult. But beyond that is the problem of what million? In the public schools, some of the very best and most experienced teachers teach remedial reading. And you want to do it with untrained volunteers? Well, let's be hopeful. A tutor sitting down with a small child and devoting a full hour every day, or every week, to helping him or her read could be nothing but helpful (for both of them). But it has been my observation that most countries, including the United States, achieve most of their literacy attainment through the use of professional (paid) teachers.

Despite all my problems with testing and standards, I strongly support your efforts to get a national reading test for every state and student. It will give one type of concrete information to parents, school administrators, and legislatures. National testing can also keep us from going down curricular blind alleys. There has never been any shortage of people who have just found the "correct way" to teach reading or restructure schools. National tests can find out if they are right.

But if you are going to encourage volunteers, please provide them with training, materials, and supervision.

And thanks again for your interest in reading as one of the most important and fundamental skills in the field of education.

Edward Fry is an emeritus professor of education at Rutgers University and a former adviser to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. He lives in Laguna Beach, Calif.

Vol. 16, Issue 38, Pages 33-34

Published in Print: June 18, 1997, as An Open Letter to the President On Reading Tests and Standards
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