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Teens Unlikely to Meet Reading Goal, RAND Report Warns

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — January 04, 2005 4 min read
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As researchers and policymakers turn attention and resources to boosting adolescent literacy, an analysis of students’ performance on state and national tests holds out scant hope that schools will come close to meeting federal goals for reading achievement over the next decade.

“Achieving State and National Literacy Goals, a Long Uphill Road” is available from the RAND Corporation, as well as a summary of the report. ()

The report, “Achieving State and National Literacy Goals, a Long Uphill Road,” prepared by the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corp. for the Carnegie Corporation of New York, suggests that inadequate progress is being made to bring more students to proficiency in reading by the 2014 deadline set by the No Child Left Behind Act.

“Recent reform efforts in education have yielded positive results in improving reading achievement for the nation’s children in the primary grades, but many children are not moving beyond basic decoding skills to fluency and comprehension,” the report, released last month, says.

“Our findings suggest some major concerns about the ability of states to meet the ambitious goal set by [the federal law] of 100 percent proficiency for all students.”

The RAND researchers analyzed results from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia from state tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading/English language arts and writing to “paint a broad-brush portrait of the condition of adolescent literacy achievement in the nation.”

While state tests are not comparable with one another or the national assessment, and the rigor of the tests and the way in which they measure proficiency in the subject also vary widely, the results generally suggest that too few adolescents—particularly African-American and Hispanic youths—are on track toward meeting state and national benchmarks.

On state reading assessments of middle school students, for example, passing rates ranged from 21 percent in South Carolina to 94 percent in Massachusetts. Fewer than half the students in 12 states passed their respective tests. On the latest national assessment in the subject, administered in 2003, students’ proficiency rates ran from 10 percent in the District of Columbia to 43 percent in Massachusetts. It is generally agreed that the national assessments in most subjects have a high standard for measuring proficiency.

On writing assessments, student results on both state and national tests are generally lower than for reading.

Still Possible?

Officials from the U.S. Department of Education dismissed the RAND analysis’ dire predictions on the prospects for meeting the federal goal. They said it was still possible to bring all children up to proficiency by the target date.

“We’re only a few years into these reforms, and just because we’re not there yet doesn’t mean we abandon kids and the goal of having them all at grade level—it means we work harder,” Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the department, wrote in an e-mail.

Jennifer Sloan McCombs, the report’s lead author, said the study does not suggest that the federal goals are impossible to reach, but “if we’re going to meet the goals, we have to get on the ball,” she said in an interview.

The 456-page report includes appendices that describe each state’s assessment program, the format and content of its tests, achievement-level definitions, and results.

Some observers say the analysis is not surprising, but fails to identify any of the potential reasons for low reading achievement among adolescents.

“With little or no access to high-quality reading instruction beyond grade 3 or 4 and little remediation, much less expert, intensive reading instruction, why would we expect the data presented to look any different?” Richard A. Allington, the vice president of the Newark, Del.-based International Reading Association, wrote in an e-mail.

After focusing state and federal policies and resources on improving reading skills in the early grades in the past several years, there has been a surge of interest in how to address the reading challenges facing older students as they tackle more complex content in the subject areas. The past year or so has seen summits, reports, and initiatives to improve the teaching of reading.

President Bush and leaders in several states have also expanded their reading initiatives to include middle and high school students. The president’s Striving Readers initiative will provide some $25 million in grants over the next year for building model instructional programs. Mr. Bush had requested $100 million for the program, but Congress slashed the amount.

The RAND report calls on policymakers and school officials to “step up” to the responsibility of improving reading instruction in later grades through increased attention and resources.

A version of this article appeared in the January 05, 2005 edition of Education Week as Teens Unlikely to Meet Reading Goal, RAND Report Warns

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