4th Graders Still Lag On Reading Test

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — April 11, 2001 9 min read
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Widespread efforts to boost reading achievement in the elementary grades, and to close the test-performance gap between minority and white students, have not yet yielded results, concludes the report of the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading, released here last week.

And while the disparity in the scores of white and minority students persists, the divide between the highest- and lowest-performing students on the test has grown still wider, the results reveal.

“Reading achievement has been very stubborn. On the average, there has been no improvement in the reading skills for 4th graders across the nation,” Gary W. Phillips, the acting commissioner of education statistics for the Department of Education, said in an interview. “There isn’t a lot of good news in this report.”

For More Information

A separate analysis of the state NAEP mathematics and reading results during the 1990s, scheduled for release this week by the National Education Goals Panel, reinforces the point. States are generally making more progress in math than in reading, but only a handful have reduced the achievement gap between students scoring in the top and bottom quartiles in either subject. Moreover, few states narrowed the gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers.

“Accountability is not just the proportion of students meeting a certain standard,” said Paul E. Barton, the author of the goals panel’s report. “You have to look at where are the improvements and changes up and down the line.”

Achievement Gap

The latest results from NAEP, or the nation’s “report card,” as the national assessment is often called, shows that reading achievement by 4th graders remains flat, continuing a trend since the early 1990s. The average score for the nationally representative sample of students was 217 on a 500-point scale, the same score for tests administered in 1992 and 1998, and statistically similar to the 214-point average students posted in 1994.

While white students scored an average of 226 points on the test, Hispanic students averaged 197 points, and African-American students scored an average of 193 points. The students in the top quartile improved their score to 245, a 3-point jump since 1992. But students in the lowest 10th percentile scored just 163 points, down 4 points since 1998 and 7 since 1992. Scores for students in the middle have remained consistent during that time.

The proportion of students at the various achievement levels held steady for all groups of students. Overall, slightly fewer than one-fourth of students were considered “proficient"—the standard set for all children to meet. About one-third demonstrated “basic” skills, while 37 percent did not meet the basic level.

Among white students, 29 percent of those tested were deemed proficient, one-third had a basic understanding of what they read, and 27 percent were below basic. Minority students performed significantly worse on the test, however, with 63 percent of African-American youngsters and 58 percent of Hispanics unable to demonstrate basic skills. Just one-tenth of black and 13 percent of Hispanic 4th graders were considered proficient in reading.

The achievement levels are considered developmental, however, as federal officials have not determined them to be “reasonable, valid, and informative.” A congressionally mandated evaluation of the levels found the procedures used to set the levels “flawed,” though they are generally perceived to be very rigorous.

Results ‘Unacceptable’

The discouraging results, some experts said, point to the need for a greater focus on early literacy for the children who need it most.

Many states have taken up the reading issue over the past few years, and have pumped more money into teacher professional development and instructional materials for students at risk of failure in reading. Those efforts, researchers and educators say, have not had enough time to take hold or produce significant improvement among struggling readers.

Even so, some observers say, progress has been too slow.

“It’s always encouraging that good readers are getting better, but it’s disturbing that there doesn’t seem to be much movement from the bottom up,” said Hugh B. Price, the president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League. The New York City-based organization recently called for a stronger emphasis on early-literacy efforts as part of its initiative to close the achievement gap between minority and white children.

“These are totally unacceptable levels of movement,” Mr. Price said. “At this rate, it will be the start of the next century before we close the gap.”

The NAEP reading test, which was given to about 8,000 4th graders last year, gauged students’ proficiency in reading as a literary experience and for gaining information. The questions—including 31 multiple-choice, 38 that required short constructed responses, and eight that called for extended written responses—measured students’ understanding of what they were reading, as well as their ability to interpret and critique the text and to provide their personal reflections.

The national assessment in reading was last given in 1998. The National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees NAEP, had initially scheduled the next assessment for 2002, when it is set to include the state portion of the exam for 4th and 8th grades, as it has since 1992. But the board approved the interim test using a national sample only in grade 4 in response to the increased concern over the past several years that all children learn to read by the end of 3rd grade.

President Bush has proposed expanding the state-level NAEP to test a sample of 4th and 8th graders in each state every year in reading and math. Currently, those subjects are tested once every four years at the state level; state participation is voluntary.

Under the president’s plan, a new fund would be set up to provide financial rewards to states that narrowed the achievement gap between groups of students, such as disadvantaged students and those who are better-off, or minority and white students. Improved overall student learning based on the results of state tests would be the other criterion states would have to meet to earn rewards. Progress on state assessments would need to be confirmed by state NAEP results before any rewards were given. ( “Experts Preach Caution on Use of ‘Precious’ NAEP,” March 14, 2001.)

‘Most Likely To Succeed’

Few states would be able to prove such progress right now, according to the separate report by the National Education Goals Panel, “Raising Achievement and Reducing Gaps: Reporting Progress Toward Goals for Academic Achievement.”

That report found that 28 of the 32 states in which the 8th grade NAEP math test was given in 1990 and 1996 showed significant improvement in their average scores, but just five reduced the gap between the highest- and lowest-performing groups. None of the states narrowed the divide between white and minority students.

In reading, the picture was more troubling, according to Mr. Barton, a former researcher at the Educational Testing Service, the Princeton, N.J.-based test-maker. In half the 36 states for which trend data were available from 4th grade reading tests between 1992 and 1998, the performance of students in the lowest 25th percentile declined, while they improved in only three states.

Yet the top group of students did better in 12 of the states, and their performance did not decline in any state. Over the same period, the disparity in performance between minority and white students improved in just one state and broadened in six states.

The marked difference between the two subjects is generally attributed to a more concentrated and consistent focus on math education than on reading since the late 1980s.

The data presented in both reports show that the push for higher academic standards for all students, and states’ efforts to hold districts and schools accountable for the results, have fallen far short of the mark, according to Amy Wilkins, a principal partner at the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that promotes high achievement for poor and minority students.

“It’s frightening, in that it would appear that in some ill-considered attempt to respond to the demands for higher achievement, what schools did was focus on the kids that were most likely to succeed,” Ms. Wilkins suggested. “These ‘creaming’ policies are damaging to kids and a fake- out of the accountability system.”

Analysis of the available data could further inform state education leaders and policymakers about where they are falling short, according to Emily Wurtz, the acting executive director of the goals panel.

“By looking at achievement patterns across multiple states, we see new areas where we should be focusing our resources and our energies,” she said.

The findings of the goals panel’s report show that the overall results for a particular state provide only a partial picture of what’s happening among its students, said John Barth, a senior education associate for the panel, a federally financed bipartisan group of state and national policymakers.

In Georgia, for example, the achievement gap on the 4th grade math test appears to have narrowed a bit between minority and white students, but not in a way that other states will want to emulate. While the achievement of black and Hispanic students stayed the same, scores for white students dropped slightly. In Massachusetts, the only other state to narrow the divide on that test, minority students improved, while the performance of white students stayed about the same.

In reading, Delaware was the only state to reduce the achievement gap between minority and white students, but its overall performance was largely unchanged.

Mississippi, a state that might normally go unnoticed because of its traditionally poor performance on NAEP, showed “healthy progress” in math and reading achievement among both high- and low-performing students, Mr. Barth said.

The goals panel does not offer any conclusions about why the achievement gap persists in many states. Although the higher proportion of students with limited English proficiency in some states might be suspected of hurting test scores, experts consulted for the panel’s report found too many exceptions to prove that theory.

At the same time, high-poverty districts were not wholly unsuccessful in their performance, according to Ms. Wurtz.

The added information could point to successful practices for raising achievement for all children, Mr. Barth said, and for dispelling misconceptions about the abilities of some groups of children.

“There is a myth that because a child is minority or low-income that they can’t achieve,” Mr. Barth said. “They can.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as 4th Graders Still Lag On Reading Test


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