Students Show Almost No Gains in Reading


In the latest snapshot of how well American schoolchildren are learning, national test results showed a small gain in math proficiency in the past two years but nearly zero improvement in reading scores since 1992 despite more than a decade of focus on boosting student achievement.

The achievement gap between students of different races narrowed slightly, but about 70 percent of students nationwide still are scoring below grade level on math and reading tests, according to the latest scores on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests released Oct. 19.

Only about 30 percent of the nation's fourth- and eighth-graders scored high enough to be considered proficient in reading in 2005, nearly the same average as in any year since state NAEP scores were first reported in 1992. In math, the number of students scoring at grade level rose to 33 percent in 2005 from 30 percent in 2003, compared to only 17 percent in 1992.

Results from the state NAEP tests, also called " The Nation's Report Card ," are reported by the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education and have been given to a national sample of fourth- and eighth-graders in reading and math every two years since 1992. The tests track student achievement by gender, race and income.

In 2005, states scored highest in fourth-grade math but lost ground in eighth-grade reading. Seven percent more fourth-graders in Arkansas and Louisiana, for example, scored higher in math between 2003 and 2005, the largest increases in the nation. Massachusetts students outscored the rest of the nation by nearly every measurement in reading and math.

No state had a higher average eighth-grade reading score in 2005 than in 2003, and seven states -- Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Utah and West Virginia -- had significantly lower scores.

The report showed a significant achievement gap between races still remains, with white and Asian students scoring higher than black and Hispanic pupils. The gap narrowed between each group between 2003 and 2005, but by less than 1 percent.

The NAEP results disappointed education advocates hoping to see bigger payoffs in student achievement as a result of education reforms at the state and federal level in the past decade.

"To me, this goes beyond disappointing," said former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance For Excellent Education, an advocacy group that promotes high school reforms. "It shows that we are failing to gain ground on the very conditions we need to reverse to improve our graduation rates and produce more students who are ready for college and the workforce."

NAEP tests are separate from the state assessment tests required by President Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which requires all students in grades 3 to 8 be tested annually in reading and math and penalizes states that fail to improve student scores. NCLB aims to raise all students to proficiency by 2014.

States have reported across-the-board gains in student achievement on state NCLB exams since the law went into effect in 2002. But the latest NAEP test results likely will raise questions about the more glowing reports coming from state-developed standardized tests.

Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that supports achievement-based school reforms, said the NAEP results raise questions about states' abilities to "stick to their accountability guns."

"Plenty of governors and state school chiefs have rushed to the microphone to announce strong gains on state tests that evaporate under the scrutiny of 'the nation's report card,'" Finn said in an email. An analysis of state assesments released by the Fordham Foundation Oct. 19 showed that nearly 20 states reported gains in reading proficiency between 2003 and 2005.

The latest NAEP scores are consistent with other national standardized tests, such as the SAT, ACT and PSAT, which all have shown flat achievement rates in reading, said Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that tracks state implementation of NCLB.

"Despite what the (Bush) administration was claiming, this is an indication that No Child Left Behind may not have made much of a difference because these are the same results we saw before the law was in effect," Jennings said.

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said the NAEP results "confirm that we are on the right track with No Child Left Behind," especially among younger students and black and Hispanic students. However, Spellings said the results also showed that middle-schoolers and high school students are lagging behind.

"It does show us that we're going to need to accelerate our progress at all grade levels and with all kids if we're to meet our goal" of 100 percent proficiency, Spellings said in a telephone news conference.

Spellings announced that President Bush soon will propose a "Striving Readers Initiative" to target middle and high school literacy.

NAEP's proficiency standards are set much higher than state standards, said Bruce Hunter, director of public policy for the American Association of School Administrators. Hunter said that it's too soon to expect the NCLB law to produce noticeable changes in NAEP results.

"I don't see three years into any program in a nation as large and diverse as ours as being long enough to say it's possible to know how effective it is," Hunter said. "It will take eight to 10 years before we know for sure."

The national results showed dramatic differences in performance of students among states.

Traditionally, New England states such as Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont score at the top. In contrast, states in the South such as Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, and some Western states such as New Mexico, consistently score lower than the rest of the nation.

However, ranking states based on this approach has resulted in unfair comparisons between high-performing states with fewer poor students and low-performing states with higher proportions of low-income students, according to a first-of-its-kind analysis of NAEP scores released Oct. 18 by Standard and Poor's (S&P) School Evaluation Services.

S&P's education statistics clearinghouse,, found that when state NAEP results from 2003 were adjusted based on their level of student poverty, most states performed similarly. The report is the first to analyze NAEP data based on student poverty levels, which are considered the strongest indicator of academic performance, said director of research Paul Gazzerro.

Mississippi, for example, has the highest percentage of poor students and has finished last among 50 states in reading proficiency since 1992. But when state poverty levels are factored into the ranking, poor students in Mississippi performed no worse than economically disadvantaged students in most other states. Texas ranked 25th in 2003 in math proficiency but outperformed states with similar levels of student poverty, the report found.

"From a policy-making and benchmarking perspective, state officials ought to know not only which states are performing at a higher level, but also which states are getting better results given the number of economically disadvantaged students they serve," Thomas Sheridan, vice president of S&P's School Evaluation Services, said in a prepared statement.


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