Test Gains Reigniting Old Debate

By Sean Cavanagh — May 22, 2007 7 min read
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Elementary school students have a stronger grasp of U.S. history, and what it means to be a knowledgeable citizen, than they did a few years ago, new test results suggest. And part of the reason they’re better informed about history and citizenship, some argue, is that they’re better readers.

That was the view put forward by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, among others, who saw the hand of the No Child Left Behind Act’s reading requirements in the latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, released last week.

Debating what role, if any, those mandates are playing in improving student progress has become almost a ritual accompanying the release of test scores for the heavily scrutinized NAEP, often referred to as “the nation’s report card.”

The NAEP reports are available from the National Center for Education Statistics.

That ritual played out again with the latest results as some advocates for history and civics education questioned the connection between federal reading efforts and the gains in 4th grade on NAEP.

The federal law requires students in the early grades to be tested annually in reading, as well as math. Its backers, including the secretary, say that schools’ work in reading is paying dividends in other subjects, as shown by the 4th grade history and civics results. Scores for 8th and 12th grade students, meanwhile, rose in history but remained flat in civics.

Ms. Spellings drew a similar connection between reading skills and NAEP gains in 4th grade science last year. Last week, she also rejected the notion that the No Child Left Behind law has forced teachers to cut back on subjects other than reading and math, as the law’s detractors have claimed.

“These results are a testament to what works,” Ms. Spellings said in a statement issued May 16, the same day as the test results. “While critics may argue that NCLB leads educators to narrow their curriculum focus, the fact is, when students know how to read and comprehend, they apply these skills to other subjects like history and civics. The result is greater academic gains.”

The secretary further suggested that the law’s Reading First program is helping students in other academic areas.

Building Skills

Reading First awards grants to schools and districts that try to improve the skills of struggling readers in the early grades by using a variety of approved skills, including phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary-building, and reading comprehension.

Federal officials did not have an estimate of what percentage of schools participating in NAEP civics and history also receive Reading First money. The vast majority of Reading First schools receive Title I funding; federal officials estimate that about 70 percent of the roughly 7,000 4th graders on both tests were in Title I schools, though the percentages were lower in the upper grades.

Peggy Altoff, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies, in Silver Spring, Md., did not dispute the idea that stronger reading skills result in higher 4th grade history and civics scores—especially because the NAEP questions at that level are very basic.

“With a lot of them, if you can read, you’re going to do well,” she said.

But Ms. Altoff also said elementary teachers have been forced to reduce time devoted to social studies topics as a result of the NCLB law.

Data from a federal survey from the 2003-04 school year, released last year, showed that instructional time in history in grades 1-4 dropped by about 30 minutes per day from the early 1990s. Time for English/language arts instruction rose by an hour per day.

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics


Reading scores on a NAEP test that measures long-term trends have improved for 9-year-olds by a significant margin over the past five years, though some of those gains occurred before the law took effect. But on what’s called the “national” NAEP, reading scores for 4th graders have remained flat since 2002.

Ms. Spellings, however, last week pointed to recent, state-reported data showing that reading proficiency increased among 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders participating in the $1 billion-a-year Reading First program. (“State Data Show Gains in Reading,” April 25, 2007.)

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics


Ms. Altoff also said Reading First has led many teachers to use exercises geared overwhelmingly toward very basic reading instruction—and not toward building coherent understanding of history and civics.

“There’s no sequence to it,” Ms. Altoff said of that instruction. “You could be reading about Martin Luther King one day and the American Revolution the next.”

Jeffrey Cohen, the lead consultant for Reading First at the California education department, also was skeptical that Reading First played a role in the NAEP 4th grade scores in history and civics. Under California’s Reading First model, the skill likely to have helped students the most on NAEP—reading comprehension—isn’t typically taught until 3rd grade, he said.

“Teachers are complaining in our state that they don’t have enough time to teach other things” besides basic reading skills, Mr. Cohen said.

But Janice Dole, an education professor at the University of Utah, who is also a co-evaluator of that state’s Reading First program, believes many schools are balancing basic reading instruction with comprehension.

“There’s no doubt in my mind it’s having an impact on NAEP scores,” Ms. Dole said of Reading First. “Kids are being taught how to read a text, and it’s translating to other texts.”

Richard M. Long, the director of government relations for the International Reading Association, based in Newark, Del., said the No Child Left Behind law is “clearly having an effect” on students’ ability to read across different subjects. While it is debatable whether Reading First improves student performance in other subjects, the program was created with a different goal in mind, he noted.

“That’s not its primary mission,” Mr. Long said. Reading First schools, he said, are those “where you’re trying to make a very specific investment.”

His organization is working with the National Council for the Social Studies and other subject-area groups on a project to give teachers guidance on how to blend other subject lessons into reading instruction.

Older Students Falter

The NAEP history and civics tests were given to a nationally representative sample of students from both public and private schools. The history exam gauges students’ knowledge of specific historical facts, as well as their ability to evaluate evidence and trends over time. The civics test covers students’ understanding of American politics, government, and “the responsibilities of citizenship” in a democracy.

The average 4th grade score in civics climbed from 150 to 154, on a 300-point scale, from 1998 to 2006, when the latest test was administered. In history, students in that grade saw their average score rise from 208 to 211, on a 500-point scale, between 2001 and 2006. Both increases were statistically significant. Students at the lowest-performing level, rather than high achievers, accomplished the bulk of the gains.

At the 8th and 12th grade levels, however, the results were mixed. Middle and high school students’ scores increased in history by statistically relevant margins. Eighth graders’ scores rose from 260 to 263, on a 500-point scale, and seniors’ average scores increased from 287 to 290, also with a maximum of 500 points.

But on the civics test, 8th and 12th grade scores remained stagnant from 1998 to 2006.

White students continued to outperform other students at all grade levels. Gaps between black and Hispanic students and their white counterparts narrowed in history and civics in 4th grade, but remained roughly the same in the upper grades.

Students at all grade levels showed a strong knowledge of some basic facts of history and civics and only a feeble grasp of others. At the 12th grade level, for instance, only 14 percent of students on the history test could explain why the United States had been involved in the Korean War. Just one-third of 8th graders could identify U.S. foreign-policy positions in Latin America.

In civics, 75 percent of 4th graders knew that only citizens can vote in the United States, but only 14 percent knew that defendants have the right to a lawyer. In 8th grade, 80 percent successfully identified a notice for jury duty, but only 28 percent could explain the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence.

Cathy Gorn, the executive director of National History Day, an organization based at the University of Maryland College Park, attributed older students’ weak showing in civics partly to shortcomings in the way that subject, and history, are taught.

Too many teachers encourage memorization of facts and dates, rather than the kind of in-depth analysis of political events and trends that students need when they encounter more difficult material, she said. Her organization, which tries to increase students’ interest in history, encourages teachers to use primary sources and have students conduct independent research beyond the textbook.

“When they’re engaged, they really start to think critically about topics,” Ms. Gorn said. “What is the legacy of this [event]? How do we understand it through time?”

A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2007 edition of Education Week as Test Gains Reigniting Old Debate


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