Reading & Literacy

National Reading Scores Are Down. What Does It Mean?

By Liana Loewus — October 30, 2019 4 min read
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The latest scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the nation’s report card, were just released—and things aren’t looking good for the country’s young readers.

Reading performance has dropped significantly among both 4th and 8th graders since the last release two years ago. Just 35 percent of 4th graders are considered proficient by NAEP standards as of this year. That’s down from 37 percent in 2017. And 34 percent of 8th graders scored at the proficient level or higher for this year, down from 36 percent in 2017.

But that’s only part of the story. In what should be very worrisome to literacy experts, teachers, and anyone concerned with inequity in education, the lowest performers showed the biggest declines. In fact, the highest-performing students were the only ones to hold steady over the last two years—all other groups did worse.

For a full analysis of the 2019 NAEP results, see reporting from Education Week’s Sarah Sparks.

Even putting those declines aside, the results sound dismal, right? Only about 1 in 3 students are proficient readers, the scores say.

It’s important to remember that proficient on the NAEP test isn’t a proxy for grade level—in fact, it’s a tougher goal than that. Students have to demonstrate “competency over challenging subject matter” to reach proficient. (See more on the meaning of “proficient,” and confusion over it, here. And for more background on the the history of the NAEP test and who takes it, see this primer.)

The NAEP results also analyze performance by state. Just one state—Mississippi—made improvements in 4th grade reading over the last two years. (The District of Columbia was the only place to make progress in 8th grade reading.)

Sometimes it helps to take the long view. Looking back over a 10-year span, 4th graders are doing significantly better (just 33 percent were proficient in 2009), while 8th graders have shown no progress.

An even longer view—looking back to 1992—shows improvements among both 4th and 8th graders in reading. (Keep in mind, though, that some students were excluded in the early years of the test, so comparisons are imperfect.) Despite those gains, “reading is clearly not increasing at the rate we would hope, and this deserves special attention,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, according to my colleague Sarah Sparks.

Here’s a chart with the trend in reading results for 4th graders.

So what does this tell us about early reading instruction in the U.S.?

As always, advocates and policy makers will use these NAEP scores to call for policy changes—including to how reading is taught. But what can we really learn about reading instruction from looking at them?

The NAEP reading test is focused on reading comprehension. In this example from the 4th grade reading test, students first read a passage about how male emperor penguins care for their young. Then they’re asked:

There’s a framework for how reading works that’s been confirmed in many research studies over the years called The Simple View of Reading. You can read about in this reading research explainer, which is part of a recently launched Education Week series called Getting Reading Right. That ongoing project will look at the cognitive science behind how student learn to read and compares that to what’s being taught in schools.

The Simple View of Reading says there are two essential components of reading comprehension: decoding ability and language comprehension. Comprehension is the product of those two things, meaning if either one is low, the student won’t be able to comprehend well. Or as Sarah Schwartz and Sarah Sparks explain in the research review, “If a student can’t decode, it doesn’t matter how much background knowledge and vocabulary he understands—he won’t be able to understand what’s on the page. But the opposite is also true: If a student can decode but doesn’t have a deep enough understanding of oral language, he won’t be able to understand the words he can say out loud.”

Here’s the rub: A test of reading comprehension such as NAEP doesn’t tell us whether it’s decoding or language low scorers are having trouble with. Are students struggling to decode the words? Or are students decoding words well, but lacking the background knowledge and vocabulary to know what they mean? Or is it some combination of both? We simply can’t tell from NAEP. The same is true of state standardized tests, which students start taking in 3rd grade. They measure comprehension, not its components.

This is all worth keeping in mind as the NAEP spin starts coming.

Surely, advocates for phonics instruction in Mississippi will point out that the state’s gains coincide with its renewed commitment to early reading, including the push for teacher-preparation programs to teach the science of reading. And sure, that’s a plausible theory—but it’s not much more than that given the limitations of the national test.

The NAEP data do tell us something about how students are doing. But figuring out how that should translate to instruction? More digging needs to be done.

See also: When Bad Things Happen to Good NAEP Data

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.