U.S. Students Bounce Back in Reading

February 17, 1999 7 min read
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How well the nation’s students are reading depends on who’s talking. Not open to interpretation, however, is that schoolchildren are still falling short of the goals set by U.S. leaders, a national assessment released last week shows.

At a news conference here, Vice President Al Gore hailed the outcome of the nation’s report card on reading as “great progress” and “a sign of larger gains to come.”

But after Mr. Gore left the gathering where the eagerly anticipated report was distributed, Department of Education officials offered a mixed message from the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

“The 1998 results show some improvement in reading achievement nationally, particularly at grade 8 and since 1994,” said Pascal D. Forgione Jr., the commissioner of education statistics for the Education Department.

“However, the increases between 1994 and 1998 for students in grades 4 and 12 showed no net gain over the 1992 average scores.”

In other words, the average scores of 4th graders and high school seniors dipped from 1992 to 1994, only to recover last year, according to the newest NAEP results. Eighth grade scores remained constant from 1992 to 1994, but have risen since.

On the test that was administered last year, 4th graders averaged 217 points on a 500-point scale, up 3 points from 1994. High school seniors scored an average of 291 points--a 4-point increase--and 8th graders’ average also rose 4 points, to 264. The tests were given to a random sampling of 31,000 students in 1,400 public and private schools. The federally sponsored NAEP periodically tests students in core subjects.

The following are percentages of students at or above the reading-achievement levels for the nation.


Below basic At or above basic At or above proficient Advanced
Grade 4
1998 38 62 31 7
1994 40 60 30 7
1992 38 62 29 6
Grade 8
1998 26*+ 74*+ 33*+ 3
1994 30 70 30 3
1992 31 69 29 3
Grade 12
1998 23*+ 77*+ 40+ 6*+
1994 25 75 36 4
1992 20 80 40 4

* Indicates that the percentage in 1998 is significantly different from that in 1992.
+ Indicates that the percentage in 1998 is significantly different from that in 1994.

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics.

The results mirror the historical seesaw of NAEP reading scores.

“Since 1971, scores have just moved up or down slightly,” said Timothy Shanahan, a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “We continue to languish. This is not a big failure, but it’s not the exciting success story we’d like to be telling.”

U.S. students, in fact, have far to go before they all read at the level that the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the exam, considers “proficient.” Only 31 percent of 4th graders, 33 percent of 8th graders, and 40 percent of seniors reached that level last year, the report says. Eighth and 12th graders showed statistically significant increases from 1994. Only 8th grade scores have shown a statistically significant increase since 1992.

Too Soon for Answers

The snapshot, though, doesn’t inform the debate over what kind of instruction--phonics, whole language, or a balance of the two--works best in classrooms, particularly in the early grades.

The decline in scores in 1994 was a call to arms for proponents of back-to-basics reading instruction, which had been displaced in many states by literature-based approaches associated with the whole-language movement. Since then, California, Texas, Washington, and several other states have either passed or proposed legislation or introduced statewide reading initiatives--many prescribing phonics, or the sounding-out method of instruction--to address their students’ low proficiency rates.

“The last NAEP results were used to really clobber existing policies,” said Larry Cuban, a professor of education at Stanford University who has studied school reforms of the past century.

But some argue that most of those initiatives have not yet had enough time to take hold.

“There isn’t anything [in the report] that should give anybody on either side of the issue any sense that a particular method or approach is better than another,” Mr. Shanahan said. “It is certainly possible that the gains are linked to some of the actions taken over the last several years, but some of the best of the initiatives are going to take a lot longer,” said Mr. Shanahan, a member of a panel that will report to Congress next year on the most effective practices in reading instruction.

Long-term strategies for bringing more children up to grade level in reading--such as improving teacher preparation, stepping up research, and increasing funding for books and professional development--are not likely to yield immediate results, Mr. Shanahan said. Nor will the effectiveness of the recent policy changes, which have been advanced by every level of government, be clear until the next round of results, he added.

Some educators suggested that the insufficient amount of time that has passed won’t stop advocates of any particular reading method from making their cases now.

“These test results will be used selectively to support any policy that policymakers want to advance,” Mr. Cuban predicted.

Expanding the Scope

State-by-state results, which Mr. Forgione, as the head of the National Center for Education Statistics, has delayed for public release until next month because of technical glitches, may offer a clearer picture of which initiatives have been more effective. (“Delay in Store for State Data on NAEP Reading Scores,” Feb. 10, 1999.)

But it won’t be until more rounds of NAEP testing are completed that such controversies may have a chance at resolution.

The assessment governing board will test 4th graders’ reading skills again next year and will assess all three grades again in 2002.

While reading advocates debate school policies, others say policymakers need to expand the scope of reading initiatives.

Research suggests that addressing the needs of illiterate parents will bolster the reading skills of their children, said Andy Hartman, the director of the National Institute for Literacy, an independent federal agency.

“The overall numbers are good reason for action, if not alarm,” Mr. Hartman said. “The bulk of the problem is still there, and our solutions have to be more robust.”

The 1998 Reading Excellence Act provides some grants for local family-literacy projects. And Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., said in a statement last week that his priorities for the reauthorization of federal K-12 programs this year will emphasize teacher training as well as family literacy. Mr. Goodling is the chairman of the House education committee.

Surveys conducted as part of the new reading assessment suggest the simplest of solutions: Encourage and challenge children to read.

Compared with earlier NAEP tests, a greater percentage of students reported reading more in school and for homework assignments, having to interpret what they read, and writing lengthy answers about books and passages they had been assigned. But while more than half of elementary school pupils reported reading books in school every day, only 21 percent of 8th graders and 6 percent of 12 graders said they had such an opportunity.

The national assessment challenges students to read for literary meaning, to gain information, and to perform a task.

Students also appear to be spending less time watching television, according to the NAEP survey, with smaller percentages reporting they spent four hours or more a day of viewing compared with the 1994 survey.

Minority Students Gain

The greatest improvements were among minority test-takers and the lowest-achieving students.

Fourth graders scoring in the lowest percentile on the test in 1994 gained 8 points, while 8th and 12th graders gained 6 and 3 points, respectively.

Black and Hispanic children improved at least 5 points at most grade levels, closing slightly the gap between them and white students. One notable exception was Hispanic 4th graders, who fell an additional 7 points behind whites over the past six years.

On average, blacks and Hispanics are about three grade levels behind their white classmates.

Following tradition, girls generally performed better than boys on the reading test, and private school students outscored their public school peers.

Paying Attention

Many reading experts are cautiously optimistic that efforts at raising student achievement, particularly those focused on reading, are on the right track.

Mr. Gore, Education Department officials, and others predicted last week that future NAEP reading scores would show increased improvement. The recent emphasis on reading programs, they say, will continue to elevate scores, much as the emphasis on mathematics instruction in the early 1990s has apparently spurred steady increases in NAEP math scores since 1992.

“These very modest changes reflect the fact that as a nation we are saying reading instruction is important,” said Richard Long, a Washington representative of the International Reading Association. “What this tells us is that the policy changes put in place over the last several years are showing good results.”

Just last week, for example, the St. Paul, Minn., and Los Angeles school districts adopted new programs highlighting reading skills in the early grades.

“I think what you’re seeing here is the beginning of a wonderful trend,” said Marshall S. Smith, the acting deputy secretary of education. “It’s a little speck of light, and it’s a long tunnel.”

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