The results are in, and the news is not good. Numbers from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), released on Wednesday, showed that reading scores stayed flat for 4th graders and rose only slightly for 8th graders over the past two years. (These are the two levels that were tested). At the 4th grade level, 2009 reading scores averaged 221 on a 500-point scale, the same as 2007, the last time the test was given. Eighth graders scored 264 on average in 2009, which is 1 point higher than the 2007 score.
NAEP, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, is a congressionally mandated battery of tests of core subject areas including math, science, writing and reading. The 2009 NAEP rated a sampling of more than 178,000 fourth-graders and 160,000 eighth graders across the country.
Things haven’t changed much in recent years. “What NAEP shows us over the past two decades is that in reading there have been only slight gains and no sustained trend of improvement,” said Steven Paine, West Virginia’s commissioner of education and a member of the body that sets policy for NAEP. He called the results “disappointing” given the “considerable amount of effort” devoted to improving reading over the past decade. And let’s not forget how much money has been spent, too.
“Today’s results once again show that achievement of American students isn’t growing fast enough,” declared Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a written statement.
Maybe it’s time to examine the $6 billion Reading First program launched by President Bush in 2002 as part of the No Child Left Behind Act. This initiative supported specific approaches to literacy instruction, with particular emphasis on phonics instruction, but it did almost nothing to foster comprehension. And what’s the point of reading words accurately if you don’t understand what you’re reading?
You may remember that there were other problems too, of a different nature. The program was mired in allegations of conflict of interest and mismanagement. Government investigators found that some people who helped oversee the program had financial ties to publishers of Reading First materials that the Education Department advocated that schools use. Even the President’s brother, Neil Bush, was involved: his software company was one of a few producing materials that participants in Reading First were required to use. How convenient!
Reading First was thus both corrupt and ineffective. Perhaps we should not be surprised that reading scores have stayed flat since 2002.
What to do next? I tend to agree with Carol Jago, president of the National Council of Teachers of English, and an amazing teacher herself, who observed that the results should remind teachers that adopting better reading-instruction strategies must go hand in hand with ensuring that students read more books. “We need to be careful that they’re not just reading snippets of
information,” Jago stated. “English teachers need to make sure what we’re doing in class is demanding from our students sustained, rigorous reading, thinking, and speaking.”
And this just in – more bad news! Andreas Scheicher, an expert on comparing national school systems, announced earlier this month that many other countries are surpassing the United States in educational attainment, including Canada, where he said 15-year-old students were on average more than one school year ahead of their counterparts in the U.S.
Scheicher is an education official with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development(OECD) which keeps track of educational achievement for 30 of the world’s richest countries. “Among OECD countries, only New Zealand, Spain, Turkey and Mexico now have lower high school completion rates than the U.S,” said Scheicher, and cited other statistics to show that a greater proportion of students in more and more countries graduate from college and score higher on achievement tests than students in the United States.
America’s education advantage, unrivalled fifty years ago, has long since vanished. What are we going to do about it?
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