41 years Later, a “2% Increase in Reading”. Wait, um…. That’s It?

June 30, 2013 — 5 Comments

I recently had to write a position statement on assessment and evaluation.  The timing of this assignment, June 2013, coincided with the release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Progress Report for 2012. This “Nation’s Report Card” provides an overview on the progress made by specific age groups in public and private schools in reading and in mathematics since the early 1970s.

Since NAEP uses the results of standardized tests, and those standardized tests use multiple choice questions, here is my multiple choice question for consideration:

Based on the 2012 NAEP Report results, what difference(s) in reading scores separates a 17-year-old high school student in 1971 from a 17-year-old high school student in 2012?

a. 41 years
b. billions in dollars spent in training, teaching, and testing
c. a 2 % overall difference in growth in reading
d. all of the above

You could act on your most skeptical instincts about the costs and ineffectiveness of standardized testing and make a calculated guess from the title of this blog post or you could skim the 57 page report (replete with charts, graphs, graphics, etc) that does not take long to read, so you could get the information quickly to answer correctly: choice “D”.

Yes, 41 years later, a 17-year old scores only 2% higher than a previous generation that probably contained his or her parents.

There have been billions of dollars invested in developing reading skills for our nation’s children. In just the last twelve years, there has been the federal effort in the form of Reading First, the literacy component of President Bush’s 2001 “No Child Left Behind” Act. Reading First initially offered over $6 billion to fund scientifically based reading-improvement efforts in five key early reading skills: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. The funding of grants for students enrolled in kindergarten through grade three in Title I Schools began in 2002-2003.

There have been individual state initiatives that complement Reading First, funded by state legislatures, such as:

There have been efforts to improve literacy made by non-profit educational corporations/foundations such as The Children’s Literacy Initiative, the National Reading Panel, and a Born to Read initiative from the American Library Association. In addition, there have been a host of policy statements from The National Council of Teachers of English and programs offered by the National Writing Project that have helped to drive attention towards the importance of reading.

All of these initiatives drove publishers of educational materials to create programs, materials and resources for educators to use. Unfortunately, the question of which reading program would prove most effective (Direct Instruction, Reading Recovery, Success for All and others) became a tangled controversy as charges of conflicts of interest between the consultants who had been hired by the Department of Education (DOE) and who trained teachers and state department of education personnel had also authored reading programs for curriculum. Fuel to this controversy was added when a review in 2006 by the DOE’s Inspector General suggested that the personnel in the DOE had frequently tried to dictate which curriculum schools must use with Reading First grant money.

Trying to improve our our students’ reading scores has been the focus so much so that our education systems have been awash in funding, materials, initiatives and controversies since 2001 in our collective to improve reading for students…and the result?

The result is a measly 2% of growth in reading for those leaving our school systems.

The evidence for this statement has been tracked by NAEP, an organization that has been assessing the progress of  9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds in reading. The graphs below taken from the NAEP report measure annual growth at each age level at the high level 250, mid level 200, and low level 150 of reading.  There are other levels measured for highest or lowest achieving students, but the levels measured on the graphs levels are correlated to the following descriptions:

LEVEL 250: Interrelate Ideas and Make Generalizations
Readers at this level use intermediate skills and strategies to search for, locate, and organize the information they find in relatively lengthy passages and can recognize paraphrases of what they have read. They can also make inferences and reach generalizations about main ideas and the author’s purpose from passages dealing with literature, science, and social studies. Performance at this level suggests the ability to search for specific information, interrelate ideas, and make generalizations.

LEVEL 200: Demonstrate Partially Developed Skills and Understanding
Readers at this level can locate and identify facts from simple informational paragraphs, stories, and news articles. In addition, they can combine ideas and make inferences based on short, uncomplicated passages. Performance at this level suggests the ability to understand specific or sequentially related information.

LEVEL 150: Carry Out Simple, Discrete Reading Tasks
Readers at this level can follow brief written directions. They can also select words, phrases, 9 or sentences to describe a simple picture and can interpret simple written clues to identify a common object. Performance at this level suggests the ability to carry out simple, discrete reading tasks.

Screen Shot 2013-06-29 at 7.52.04 PM

The NAEP report does offer some positive developments. For example, from 1971-2012, reading scores for 9-year-olds have seen an increase of 5% in students reading at the lower (150) level, an increase of 15% for students reading at mid-range (200), and an increase of 6% for students reading at the higher (250) level.

Screen Shot 2013-06-29 at 7.52.16 PMSimilarly, reading scores for 13-year olds have increased 8% for students reading at mid-level, and 5% for students at the higher level. Scores for student reading at the lower level, however, saw a negligible increase of only 1%.

At this point, I should note that the NAEP report does contain some positive finding. For example, the measurements indicate that the gaps for racial/ethnic groups did narrow in reading over the past 41 years. According to the report:

Even though White students continued to score 21 or more points higher on average than Black and Hispanic students in 2012, the White – Black and White – Hispanic gaps narrowed in comparison to the gaps in the 1970s at all three ages. The White – Black score gaps for 9- and 17-year-olds in 2012 were nearly half the size of the gaps in 1971.

Unfortunately, even that positive information should be considered with the understanding that most of these gains for racial and ethnic groups were accomplished before 2004.

Finally, for students leaving public and private school systems, the overall news is depressing. Any gains in reading in ages 9 and 13, were flattened by age 17. The growth for students reading at higher level dropped from 7% to 6%, while the  percentage of mid-range readers remained the same at 39%. The gains of 3% were in the scores of lower range readers, from 79% to 82%. Considering the loss of 1% at the higher end, the overall growth in measurement is that measly 2%.

Screen Shot 2013-06-29 at 7.55.37 PM

That’s it. A financial comparison would be a  yield $.02 for every dollar we have invested. Another comparison is that for every 100 students, only two have demonstrated improvement after 13 years of education.

Assessing the last 12 of the 41 years of measuring reading initiatives illustrates that there has been no real progress in reading as measured by standardized tests in our public and private education institutions grades K-12. NAEP’s recounting of the results after considerable funding, legislation, and effort, is as Shakespeare said, “a tale…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

National Center for Education Statistics (2013). The Nation’s Report Card: Trends in Academic Progress 2012 (NCES 2013–456). Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C.

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