Corrected: An earlier version of this story omitted New Mexico from the list of states that saw increases in NAEP reading scores between 2007 and 2009 at the 8th grade level only.
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Reading scores stayed flat for 4th graders and rose only slightly for 8th graders on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, results that some find disappointing after many years of intensive attention to improving the reading skills of American students.
The report released today on NAEP, commonly known as “the nation’s report card,” shows that 8th graders scored 264, on average, on a 500-point scale on the 2009 exam. That is 1 point higher than the last time the reading test was given, in 2007. At the 4th grade level, 2009 reading scores averaged 221, the same as in 2007.
Eighth graders’ reading scores have hovered between 262 and 264 since 2002, and have risen 4 points overall since 1992, the year that marks the beginning of this series of reading exams. Fourth graders’ scores, also, have risen 4 points since 1992, and since 2002 have stayed within 2 points of the average 2009 scores.
“What NAEP shows us over the past two decades is that in reading there have been only slight gains and no sustained trend of improvement,” Steven Paine, West Virginia’s commissioner of education and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, said at a news conference to announce the results. He called the findings “disappointing” given the “considerable amount of effort” devoted to improving reading. Even the 1-point 8th grade gain, while statistically significant, “is not sufficient,” he said.
Building reading skills has been one of the main focus areas for states for more than a decade as they have set up accountability systems aimed at raising student achievement.
At the federal level, the Reading Excellence Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1998, brought attention to the need for better reading instruction. The National Reading Panel’s 2000 report, which called for better approaches to teaching reading, was a key source in crafting the $6 billion Reading First program launched by President George W. Bush as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, signed in 2002. Reading First required key changes, including professional development, and the use of formative assessments, more structured curricula, and a sequence of interventions for struggling students.
In spite of those efforts, however, Mr. Paine noted that the proportion of 8th graders scoring at or above “proficient” on NAEP has risen only 3 percentage points, to 32 percent, since 1992. NAEP sets student-achievement levels in three categories: “basic,” “proficient” or “advanced.” The latest results show that one-quarter of 8th graders and one-third of 4th graders don’t reach the basic level.
The lack of improvement in 4th grade reading between 2007 and 2009 is “especially disappointing,” Mr. Paine said, because it parallels the December report on NAEP mathematics at that grade level. The math results, however, showed far more growth over time in students’ progress than the new report shows in their reading progress, a difference Mr. Paine deems “striking.”
One reason for the difference, he said, could be that learning math is largely confined to math classrooms, and the subject is taught with cohesive, sequential curricula reflecting standards adopted by national math groups and echoed in textbooks. Reading comprehension, by contrast, is acquired across all courses, with “no similar cohesion or emphasis” on a clear reading curriculum, he said. Also, students’ reading-comprehension skills can be deeply influenced by what they do outside school.
Some officials saw the NAEP results as a call to arms. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urged support for putting the administration’s key education reforms, such as higher, common standards and better assessments, into practice.
The average reading score was 1 point higher in 2009 than in 2007 and 4 points higher than in 1992, but in between did not always differ significantly from 2009.
3% at Advanced
32% at or above Proficient
75% at or above Basic
25% below Basic
No significant change in average score since 2007.
8% at Advanced
33% at or above Proficient
67% at or above Basic
33% below Basic
SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics
“We shouldn’t be satisfied with these results,” he said in a statement. “By this and many other measures, our students aren’t on a path to graduate high school ready to succeed in college and the workplace.”
Carol Jago, the president of the National Council of Teachers of English, based in Urbana, Ill., said the results should remind teachers that adopting better reading-instruction strategies must go hand in hand with ensuring that students read more books.
“In the last five or 10 years, many of us have embraced many strategies, all the things we’ve figured out that help struggling readers do what accomplished readers do invisibly,” she said. “But we have to remember that it’s all in the service of reading a great deal more than students are reading today. And we need to be careful that they’re not just reading snippets of information. English teachers need to make sure what we’re doing in class is demanding from our students sustained, rigorous reading, thinking, and speaking.”
Officials found some encouragement in the proportion of students reaching the basic level or higher in 4th grade reading over the past decade. That number has gone from 59 percent in 2000 to 67 percent in 2009. Mr Paine attributed that to a focus on early reading instruction, the only area of reading “where there has recently been an emphasis and some agreement.”
Another area of optimism cited by officials of the assessment governing board was the progress made in reading by students at the lower achievement levels. The scores of 8th graders performing in the 10th percentile, for instance, rose 2 points since 2007 and 6 points since 1992. In 4th grade, average scores of those in the 10th percentile have risen 5 points since 1992. The scores of students in the 90th percentile, however, have not shown as much growth.
The greater gains by the lowest-performing students could reflect the effects of state accountability systems since the late 1990s, even before the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, said Tom Loveless, the author of a recent report examining NAEP score trends and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
“It’s consistent with a story that says accountability systems are doing what they’re designed to do, boosting the lowest achievers,” he said. But he noted, as well, that the highest-achieving students did not appear to benefit from those same systems.
While the NAEP scores were relatively flat over the past two years, the long-term progress is “encouraging” because it suggests that the last decade’s focus on reading is paying off in 4th grade and “washing up” into 8th grade as well, said Michael L. Kamil, a Stanford University professor of education. But the lack of greater progress also illustrates some widespread problems with reading instruction, he said.
Teachers spend too much time on literary texts in the early grades, neglecting to arm students with skills they need to tackle informational texts beginning in 4th grade, and in grades 4-8, they “don’t do anything systematic” in reading instruction, he said.
“We are just now finally realizing that kids actually graduate from 3rd grade,” Mr. Kamil said.
Boys on the Move
Even as the scores of most student groups—girls and boys and those of various races and ethnicities—have risen over time, gaps since 2007 showed no improvement, and gaps since 1992 narrowed in only two areas: between black and white students in 4th grade and between boys and girls in 8th grade.
In fact, despite widespread concern about boys’ reading skills, the latest NAEP scores show boys making greater improvements than girls since 1992, Mr. Loveless pointed out.
The 2009 NAEP was the first based on a new reading framework, or testing blueprint. The framework places more emphasis on literary and informational texts, uses a new way of assessing students’ vocabulary knowledge, and includes poetry. A NAGB analysis concluded that results from tests based on the new framework can be accurately compared with results of tests based on the previous framework, which had been used since 1992.
Among states, Kentucky alone saw increases in reading scores at both grade levels since 2007. Rhode Island and the District of Columbia saw scores rise only at the 4th grade level, and seven states—Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Missouri, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Utah—saw increases only in 8th grade.
Terry K. Holliday, Kentucky’s commissioner of education, attributed the gains to Reading First and to multiple state reading initiatives focusing on elementary and middle school. Reading coaches were dispatched to many schools to work with teachers, he said, and professional development in reading instruction was provided not just to English/language arts teachers, but to those in other subjects as well.
A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Education Week