Reading & Literacy

Struggling Readers Score Lower on Foundational Skills, Analysis of National Test Finds

By Sarah Schwartz — April 27, 2021 4 min read
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An analysis released today of student scores on the test known as the “nation’s report card” helps paint a more detailed picture of the country’s struggling readers.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is given to a nationally representative sample of U.S. students to measure what they know and can do across subjects. This new report looks at results from a supplemental Oral Reading Fluency NAEP test that a portion of 4th graders took in 2018—a test that measured their ability to read passages with speed, accuracy, and expression, as well as their word-reading ability. These 4th graders also took the main NAEP reading test, which measures reading comprehension.

On the ORF test, students were assessed on how quickly and accurately they could read short passages aloud, whether they could recognize and read familiar words from a list, and whether they could sound out nonsense words that followed typical sound-spelling patterns.

The researchers found that students’ reading comprehension was connected to their ability to read text fluently and accurately, and to their ability to recognize and decode words. The lower students scored on the main NAEP reading test, the harder time they had with reading fluency and foundational skills on the ORF.

These results are in line with what research has shown about how skilled reading works. When children read a passage, their ability to understand the text is dependent on interrelated skills: They have to be able to decipher and recognize the words on the page, and they need to be able to make meaning of the words that they read. (See Education Week’s reading research explainer for more background on how skilled reading works.)

Being able to decode printed text and recognize words quickly and fluently are building block skills in early reading instruction. Even so, reporting from Education Week and other outlets has shown that many schools don’t teach these skills in ways that will lead most students to mastery.

“Research shows that reading comprehension is very much dependent, critically dependent, on oral reading fluency and what we call foundational skills that underlie oral reading fluency,” said Sheida White, an educational researcher at the American Institutes for Research, and the lead author on the study.

“Students who have oral reading fluency and foundational skills, they tend to comprehend connected text—passages and paragraphs—with greater efficiency and effectiveness,” she said.

One long-standing problem with the main NAEP reading test is that the results can’t pinpoint which component skills of reading low-scoring students are struggling with. The test asks students to respond to questions that test their comprehension of text. When they get the question wrong, it’s impossible to know if they couldn’t read the words or if they couldn’t parse what the words meant—or both.

While this test of oral reading fluency and foundational skills does provide new information, White noted that it similarly can’t prove causation.

“We have not looked at other elements of language—we haven’t looked at vocabulary, we haven’t looked at syntax,” she said.

Report offers “much-needed” information on low-performers

The supplemental test had two main tasks. Students read four short passages out loud for the assessment of reading fluency, and read word lists—of English words that most 4th graders would recognize, and of fake “words” that were phonetically regular, meaning students would be able to use their knowledge of sound-spelling correspondences to decode them.

Researchers then compared 4th graders’ performance in these domains to their performance on the main NAEP reading test, which categorizes students as either below basic, basic, proficient, or advanced.

They found that scores on the supplemental test fell in tandem with scores on the main test: Students who scored advanced on the main reading test had the highest oral reading fluency, read the most familiar words correctly, and had the highest decoding skills; students who were below basic on NAEP reading scored the lowest on the fluency and word reading tasks.

The researchers also looked more closely at struggling readers. They divided students who were below basic on NAEP reading into three categories: The bottom third were below NAEP basic low, the middle third below basic medium, and the top third below basic high.

They found differences among these groups as well—the students in the below basic low group had the lowest scores on the fluency and foundational skills test.

“The sharpest drop is between the below NAEP basic medium and low, on just about all the measures,” White said. “It’s immensely significant that we look at this and see this variation.”

The researchers also recommend additional testing of 4th graders’ oral reading fluency and foundational skills abilities.

“Such testing would provide much-needed information about the students who are performing below NAEP Basic,” the researchers write in the report.

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