NAEP, the Long View, and the Crisis in Reading

The latest scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress–the gold standard, no-stakes federal test–were released this morning. Only about one-third of American fourth-graders are proficient in reading, and 40 percent are proficient in math. Over the past two years, there has been no statistically significant improvement in the black-white achievement gap, and only a tiny closing of the Hispanic-white gap.

Let's look more closely at the reading scores. First, over the past two decades:

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But it's important to keep an even longer view in mind when looking at these numbers. Although the picture in math is somewhat more optimistic, over the past 40 years in reading, achievement at grade 4 has improved, at grade 8 has stayed relatively stagnant, and age 17 has stayed completely stagnant–actually going down since a high in the late 1980s. 

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The longterm improvement in the early grades and stagnation in high school suggests that while our education system has gotten better at teaching basic skills to a diverse group of students, we haven't put the same effort into developing higher-order reading comprehension. That's why the curricular changes I outlined in my post yesterday on the Common Core are so important. In short, kids need to be reading more challenging, informational, non-fiction texts; fewer fictional stories; and should be writing more evidence-based analyses and fewer memoir-like personal essays. 

Raising our overall reading achievement is incredibly important, because literacy skills are the ones most closely correlated with success in college and the professional world. Third-graders who aren't proficient in reading are four times less likely to graduate high school than proficient readers. 

6 thoughts on “NAEP, the Long View, and the Crisis in Reading

  1. David Frazer

    These are disaggregated scores, no? Isn’t it possible that they mask disaggregated progress? We have a lot more minority students than we did in 1971 and that’s where the gap is. Isn’t it possible that scores for individual ethnic groups [white, AA, Hispanic] have improved while, overall, scores have stagnated because there are so many more minority students in the sample?

  2. Dana Goldstein

    Yes, I’ve seen the 40 year chart disaggregated by race. My point is slightly different: that the growth at the 4th grade level is not matched by the relatively tiny growth in later grades.

  3. EB

    Agree with your points about poor reading instruction at the higher grade levels, Dana. Two other factors: students do not literally drop out of elementary or middle school, while they do drop out of high school. Since 1971, drop out rates have fallen, although not enough. Many of those who might have dropped out in the past, but who now stay in school or stay in longer, score lower on NAEP. Result: lower overall scores for high schools. Also, the proportion of students who could be called school resisters goes up as the student body gets older. First graders are easy to engage; 16-year olds, not so much.


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