Reading scores hold steady on nationwide test
Reading scores for fourth and eighth grade students held mostly steady last year, continuing a stubborn trend of minimal improvement across most racial, economic and geographic groups.
Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a series of federally funded achievement tests, rose in two states and the District of Columbia in grade four and in nine states for grade eight in 2009. Overall, the fourth-grade average remained unchanged while eighth graders rose one point.
The average score for both grades was only four points higher than it was in 1992.
“Today’s results once again show that the achievement of American students isn’t growing fast enough,” Education Sec. Arne Duncan said in a statement. “Like the NAEP 2009 math scores released last fall, the reading scores demonstrate that students aren’t making the progress necessary to compete in the global economy.”
Fourth grade math scores flattened last year and eighth grade scores improved two points, scores that were considered stagnant compared to years of dramatic improvements; there has been a 27 point increase overall for fourth grade students since 1990. By contrast, those leaps have never been seen in reading.
“I really think that there are tremendous implications for the quality of teaching and the development of school leadership to make sure we have high performing schools across the country,” said Steven Paine, superintendent of West Virginia schools and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the tests.
The test results come eight years after the enactment of the No Child Left Behind law championed by President George W. Bush, which set a goal for every student to read and do math at grade level by 2014. In 2009, just 33 percent of fourth grade and 32 percent of eighth grade students scored at the proficient level in reading.
President Barack Obama is urging states to turn around low performing schools with one of four intervention models and providing billions in funding through competitive grants aimed at spurring reform in education, and attempting to pass reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The proposal would dismantle No Child Left Behind, moving away from punishing schools that don’t meet benchmarks and focus on rewarding schools for progress.
“There’s no magic bullet in all of this,” said David Gordon, a governing board member and superintendent of Sacramento County schools. “I don’t think any project or program is going to create improved performance. I think it’s back to the basics. I think it’s good teaching and good leadership in schools which produces improved student performance.”
Fourth-grade students scored 221 on average out of a 500-point scale. Eighth-graders posted an average of 264.
The average score of fourth-grade students declined in four states: Alaska, Iowa, New Mexico and Wyoming.
“We should celebrate the improvements our eighth graders made, but our seemingly stalled progress at the elementary level is discouraging,” Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, said in a statement. “Our country cannot afford to fall into an academic recession while were trying to climb out of an economic one.”
While the overall scores remain relatively unchanged, researchers say there are important trends – and progress – taking place within subgroups. Tom Loveless, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, noted that the gap between the lowest and highest performers has consistently been shrinking from year to year.
The lowest 10th percentile of fourth graders scored an average of 170 in 1992 and 175 in 2009, and those in the 25th percentile increased their average from 194 to 199 during the same years – a jump of five points each. Meanwhile, the highest-performing students jumped three points, from 261 to 264.
“To the extent that there are gains, they’re found amongst the lowest achievers,” Loveless said.
He suspects that pattern is related to the enactment of more accountability systems at the state and federal level that focus attention on the lowest achievers and punish or reward schools based on progress with that group.
The report also offers a snapshot of how students are doing across racial and ethnic lines as the face of the average United States classroom continues to change. White students made up 56 percent of fourth-grade test takers in 2009, compared with 73 percent in 1992, reflecting the growing diversity of schools in America. In the same time period, Hispanic students have risen from 7 to 20 percent.
And, in another sign of the nation’s recession, the number of students eligible for free lunch rose as well – from 32 percent of fourth graders in 2003 to 38 percent in 2009.
Meanwhile, a significant achievement gap remains among several groups. Affluent, white and Asian/Pacific Islander students are scoring higher than low-income, black and Hispanic students. Each group has made gains, but at about the same rate, resulting in a continuing, sizable gap – 26 points between white and black eighth-grade students, and 24 percent between white and Hispanic students – somewhat smaller than it was in 1992.
“Certain negative patterns are of long standing, and consistent and decisive action must be taken to ensure that these patterns will be reversed,” said Kathryn H. Au, president of the International Reading Association.
The gap between male and female students has remained steady or decreased as well, with male students increasing their scores, despite concerns they are not reading as much in an age of video games and text messaging.
“One might speculate that boys are doing other reading that they don’t see as reading; maybe texting, social groups, e-mails, interaction with IMs and social networks,” Loveless said.
Other highlights from the report:
– Eighth grade students in city schools increased their average score from 257 to 259.
– Scores for fourth-grade black students in the District of Columbia rose.
– Fourth-grade students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch in Connecticut, Florida and New York improved their average score. Nationwide, the average score for this group of students increased at both grade levels.
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