WASHINGTON — The United States, in the throes of one of the biggest education-reform drives in history, is seeing progress in at least one key area - reading.
Across the board, reading scores are up for the three grades tested (4, 8, and 12) compared with scores four years earlier. Moreover, improvement is evident for nearly all students - boys, girls, whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians (except for the fourth grade) - and for public schools, private schools, and schools in each region of the country.
But the reading "report card" by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) - widely considered the most important test in the US - also holds a sobering message in the 1998 scores. Despite gains, 3 in 5 high school seniors don't read well enough to handle challenging subject matter, and the same ratio of black and Hispanic fourth-graders can't read well enough to know what is going on in class.
Reading scores have been the immovable rock in efforts to improve American education.
While math scores have steadily increased since 1980, reading scores have been stagnant or even declined, despite major reading initiatives. Without sustained improvement in the most basic skill of all, national reform efforts will founder, many educators say.
"Today's NAEP report shows that there is significant movement in the right direction," says Mark Musick, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), which administers the national tests. "Unfortunately, there still are not nearly enough students who are reading well enough to handle a challenging curriculum or meet the nation's needs [in] the 21st century."
But even mixed NAEP results have been a powerful boost to reform efforts nationwide. The drop in 1994 reading scores prompted a whole-scale reassessment of reading instruction in the nation - away from a method called "whole language" instruction and back toward fundamental spelling and phonics.
Even if this year's improvement can be tied to the reemergence of phonics, however, educators say it will take awhile for the emphasis on basic reading skills to reach the classroom.
"Phonics hasn't really made it back into the classroom yet," says Sandra Stotsky, a researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "You've still got people in higher education who are digging their heels in and not giving teachers the in-service training they need to teach basic skills."
States and school boards adopted whole language instruction in the 1980s - an approach that favored exposure to interesting literature and soft-pedaled the basics. While this worked for average students, it proved detrimental to children from poorer backgrounds, who came to the classroom with little exposure to reading. Subsequent poor test results sparked a backlash.
Nowhere was that alarm sounded more emphatically than in California, which adopted whole language in 1987. It woke up to find its fourth-graders vying with those in Louisiana for the lowest reading scores in the nation on the 1994 NAEP report. Then-California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) described the results as "deplorable and inexcusable."
After the 1994 test debacle, California went back to serious phonics instruction. Students are now required to take two hours of phonics-based instruction every day. In addition, the state signed with private groups, such as Kaplan Learning Services, to provide additional phonics and test-taking training outside of class.
"Our program aims to give students the phonics and decoding skills they need to raise their ability to read," says Martie Garlett, executive director of K-12 programs for Kaplan Learning Services. Kaplan has contracts to improve reading scores in 25 of the poorest-performing schools in Los Angeles.
Californians must wait another month to learn if the shift back toward phonics has improved their state's position in the national rankings. State-by-state NAEP results, which are usually released at the same time as the national results, have been delayed this year.
Texas, another state that had adopted a whole-language approach to reading instruction, has also now shifted to a "balanced" approach that includes phonics.
While the "reading wars" of the 1980s and '90s have rocked the teaching profession, some educators - such as principal Charlotte Parker in Houston - persisted all along in incorporating phonics into classroom instruction.
That meant supplementing first-grade reading textbooks with other materials to help students figure out the words they were reading. "I just had to structure my program to fill in the gaps," says Ms. Parker, principal of Roosevelt Elementary School. "I used [federal] funds to buy phonics workbooks, picture cards. And if my new teachers didn't know how to teach phonics, I'd show them how myself. I had to become the teacher of teachers."
The progress was hailed by the Clinton administration as evidence that its reading initiatives - a cornerstone of its push to improve US schools - is working.
Teachers unions, too, saw positive results in the scores. They attribute the improvements in reading in part to an overall emphasis on literacy. "We're heartened by the finding that students are watching less television and reading more in school and at home," says National Education Association president Bob Chase.
Some Republicans, though, were more sober about the results. "This reading report card will inevitably spur the call for new federal education programs, but that may not be the answer," says Rep. Bill Gooding (R) of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.