Why Johnny Isn't Reading Much Better

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Comstock Select / Corbis

A little boy reads in a classroom.

Each year education policymakers and administrators wait anxiously for the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), otherwise known as The Nation's Report Card. The anxiety is highest over how American students will perform in reading and math, reported every two years. These subjects are the focus for most of the testing required under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the controversial legislation currently under review by Congress. Is the enormous attention being paid to reading and math — often to the detriment of other subjects — paying dividends? The NAEP results released this morning provide a modest yes: scores are up slightly, more convincingly in math than in reading. But both fans and foes of NCLB will find support for their positions in the latest results.

About 700,000 students across the U.S. in grades 4 and 8 participated in NAEP reading and math exams, which were given last winter. The results show national trends, but also provide a window on how students in each of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., are doing. Since each state creates its own reading and math tests, NAEP provides a rare opportunity to compare, say, how kids are doing in Massachusetts (great) to how they are faring in the nation's capital (improved but still appalling).

Overall, the news is better on math than on reading. Average math scores have been rising slowly and steadily since 1996. The latest scores continue the trend with small increases — two points on a 500-point scale — for both 4th graders and 8th graders.

Another bit of good news is that in math, all boats are rising a little. Even kids in the top 10% are scoring higher on average than in the past, just as the kids in the bottom 10% are. This might ease some concerns that we are failing our best students — at least in math.

On the other hand, NCLB's big push to close the achievement gap between ethnic and racial groups shows mixed results. While the gap in math scores narrowed a bit between blacks and whites, the gap persisted for Hispanics and whites. The same was true with the results in reading. Another possible sign of trouble: average math scores for all students have been rising more slowly over the past two years than they did between 2000 and 2003 — before NCLB went into full effect.

In reading, 4th grade scores have been rising gradually since 1996 and were up two points on this year's test. But progress in 8th grade remains elusive: the average 8th grade score (263) was the same in 2007 as it was in 2003 and 1998. Only three states (Florida, Hawaii, and Maryland) along with Washington, D.C., actually saw gains in both 4th and 8th grade reading scores. Seven states lost ground in 8th grade reading, compared with 1998 results. And despite the gains in 4th grade scores, not one state — not even mighty Massachusetts — has even half of its 4th graders reading proficiently.

In contrast to math, where kids of all levels seem to be gaining fairly evenly, there are bigger gains in reading at the bottom and middle of the class than at the top. The better students are not improving.

This kind of stagnation, along with the disappointing results in 8th grade overall, will further fuel the current debate among educators over how America teaches reading. It appears that the recent emphasis on phonics and reading mechanics, encouraged by the Bush Department of Education, is helping in early years, but something different is needed to take students beyond an elementary level. "Substantial improvement in reading achievement is still eluding us as a nation," said Amanda Avallone, a member of the NAEP governing board, at a press conference carried live on the Internet. Avallone teaches 8th grade English in Colorado.

As always, there are huge differences in achievement from state to state. Massachusetts is the brightest light. Not only does it have the highest average math and reading scores overall, it also has the highest percentages of students achieving at an "advanced" level and the fewest at a level below "basic". (NAEP scores fall into four categories: Advanced, Proficient, Basic, Below Basic.)

At the other end of the spectrum is Washington, D.C., which, despite some progress, remains the shame of the nation. A staggering 51% of its 4th grade kids and 66% of 8th graders perform below basic level in math and 61% of District 4th graders read below a basic level. Also in the reading hall of shame are Mississippi, with 49% of 4th graders reading below the basic level; Louisiana with 48% at the bottom; and California with 47% of its 4th graders reading below basic.

To find your state results, click here.