Reading & Literacy

NAEP Scores Show Little Progress in Students’ Grasp of Vocabulary

By Catherine Gewertz — March 31, 2015 1 min read
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A new report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, better known as NAEP, breaks out vocabulary scores from its reading assessments, and it shows some uninspiring results. Overall, students aren’t getting much stronger at deducing the meaning of words from their context.

The NAEP study looks at 4th, 8th and 12th grade vocabulary performance between 2009 and 2013. Fourth and 8th grade students inched up a point on the 500-point vocabulary scale between 2011 and 2013, but 12th grade students, who weren’t assessed for vocabulary in 2011, didn’t budge between 2009 and 2013.

The big-picture results show some sobering stuff. Achievement gaps by race and income are big at the 4th and 8th grade levels, and even bigger by high school. (Use the drop-down to choose which kind of gap you want to see, and click the tabs to choose the grade level.)

Interestingly, too, the vocabulary-score gap between white and Asian students is narrow in elementary school, with Asians outscoring whites by a few points. It remains narrow in middle school, with white students pulling ahead, but it widens significantly in high school, with white students outperforming Asian students by 9 points. While Asian students’ performance held steady or improved over time in elementary and high school, it diminished over time at the high school level.

Students of all stripes show a mix of weakness and strength in their grasp of common vocabulary words. These pages of the NAEP report let you click through and see the words that were presented to students in reading passages, and what proportions of students chose their correct interpretations. A few highlights:

Only 47 percent of 4th graders chose the correct interpretation for "brilliant" and 44 percent chose the correct one for "knowingly." But 73 percent were able to figure out that "touched" meant "convinced" in the context the reading passage presented. Only 49 percent of 8th graders chose the correct interpretation of "reverently" and 56 percent chose the right one for "complete." But 87 percent knew that "initiation" meant the protagonist in the passage was "beginning to learn" something. Only 32 percent of 12th graders chose the correct interpretation of "novel," when its context meant "new." But 81 percent chose the right interpretation of "assimilate" when its context meant "to absorb words from many languages."

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.