Reading scores up for younger students, down among seniors
Jun. 19, 2003 09:00 AM
WASHINGTON - America's fourth-graders are getting better at reading, but its
seniors are getting worse.
Fourth-graders in 2002 showed significant reading gains compared with 1998,
according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress - known as the
nation's report card - released Thursday. It is those younger students who are
at the center of a national push to improve basic education.
But then comes the shift: eighth-graders showed no reading improvement over the
four-year period, and 12th-graders showed declines at every level, from basic to
Overall, less than a third of fourth-graders (31 percent) and eighth-graders (33
percent) showed they could understand and analyze challenging material. That
skill level, defined as proficient, is the focal point of the test. Among
high-school seniors, 36 percent hit that mark, down from 40 percent in 1998.
The up-and-down results drew expectedly mixed reaction from education officials.
They highlighted the gains in reading fundamentals, particularly among
minorities, but could not ignore a 12th-grade drop-off that has ranged from math
to science to reading in recent years.
"There are no scientific answers as to why our high school seniors have
performed so poorly on this reading assessment, but we're still searching for
solutions to these daunting challenges," Education Secretary Rod Paige said. "At
the same time, we know what works to teach youngsters to read, and we know that
all children can learn."
Among fourth-graders, black and Hispanic students narrowed the scoring gap
between themselves and white students. However, the gap remains significant: 41
percent of white students read at a proficient level, up from 37 percent in
1998. That compares with 12 percent for blacks, up from 10 percent, and 15
percent for Hispanics, an increase from 13 percent.
The reading test is overseen by the independent National Assessment Governing
Board and run by the National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the
Education Department. Results of the other topic tested in 2002, writing, are
scheduled to be released in July.
The assessment is designed to measure skills students should possess in a given
grade, with the goal being for all students to be above basic, which is partial
mastery of key skills. In reality, typical performance in all three grades
reached only basic achievement.
Whether the test's standards are fair is often debated. On their own tests, for
example, many states define proficient in a way that equates with only the basic
Student performance trends differ slightly when the numbers are compared with
1992, the year the current reading test began. Since then, fourth-grade
achievement has essentially been flat, eighth-grade scores have climbed and
12th-grade results have declined overall.
The results released Thursday also include reading performances for most states
in grades four and eight. The policy board did not establish a state-by-state
breakdown for grade 12.
For example, eight states showed significant fourth-grade increases in the
percentage of students reading at the challenging level: Delaware, Florida,
Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and Washington. One state,
Oklahoma, showed a significant decline.
The reading tests were the first to include special accommodations, such as
extra testing time, for disabled and limited-English students in all test
samples. But if the national test did not offer an accommodation typically
provided in that state - reading a test aloud, for example - students could be
excluded. Test officials say the impact should be "minimal."
Charles Smith, executive director of the test's governing board, said he expects
some observers to challenge the validity of the findings based on the way the
sampling was done.
"All of this is to be expected and welcomed, particularly in a year when results
showed some signs of significant improvement," he said. On balance, though,
cautious optimism is a "reasonable reaction" to the results, he said.