The NAEP study looks at 4th, 8th, and 12th grade vocabulary performance between 2009 and 2013. Fourth and 8th graders inched up a point on the 500-point scale between 2011 and 2013, but 12th graders, who weren’t assessed for vocabulary in 2011, didn’t improve from 2009 to 2013.
The results show that achievement gaps by race and income are big at the 4th and 8th grade levels, and even bigger by high school. The vocabulary-score gap between Asian and white students is narrow in elementary school, with Asians outscoring whites by a few points. It remains slim in middle school, with white students pulling ahead, but widens in high school, where white students outperform Asian students by 9 points. While Asian students’ performance held steady or improved over time in elementary and middle school, it diminished over time at the high school level.
Among the highlights:
• Only 47 percent of 4th graders chose the correct interpretation for “brilliant,” but 73 percent figured out that “touched” meant “convinced” in the context of the reading passage presented.
• Forty-nine percent of 8th graders correctly interpreted “reverently,” while 87 percent knew that “initiation” meant the protagonist in the text was “beginning to learn” something.
Just 32 percent of 12th graders knew that “novel” meant “new.” But 81 percent knew “assimilate” when its context meant “to absorb words from many languages.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 15, 2015 edition of Education Week as Students’ Vocabulary Skills Aren’t Improving, Study Says