America's pupils progress in math, falter in reading

Benchmark national test of 4th- and 8th-graders also takes stock of the federal 2002 education reform law.

The national report card is in for No Child Left Behind, and the results are mixed: American fourth- and eighth-graders are continuing hard-won gains in mathematics, but are still struggling, or even losing ground, in reading.

That's the big picture from the 2004 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the "gold standard" for testing, released Wednesday. Under the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, national and state report cards are required every two years as an indicator of whether students are learning basic skills - and how schools may need to adjust to make sure they do.

But this year's test, taken by a sampling of students in all 50 states, is also a measure of whether two decades' worth of investment in data-driven education reform, especially in the past five years, is paying off. The new scores show that progress slowed between 2003 and 2005, when the No Child Left Behind law was most fully implemented.

US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said the data confirm that "we are on the right track with No Child Left Behind," adding that the results "clearly show a need to apply accountability principles and focused instruction in our middle and high schools."

At the heart of the NCLB law is the assumption that you can't improve what you don't measure, and that disaggregating test results by race, ethnicity, gender, and income can help schools put resources where they are most needed.

In the 2005 NAEP results, math scores hit their highest level in 15 years, with some of the largest gains being made by black and Hispanic students. Fourth-graders improved in reading results, while eighth-graders showed a small but significant decline since 2003. As with mathematics, the largest gains in reading were among black and Hispanic students. NAEP officials also claim gains in bridging income gaps.

"Parents and educators should be pleased with recent successes, especially at the elementary level. While still large, the differences between those student classified as eligible and not eligible for subsidized lunches continue to shrink," says Darvin Winick, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP.

But for many educators and parent groups, the failure of NCLB to budge national reading scores is a sign that the entire approach is flawed. They are part of what has become a nationwide backlash against the law's requirements, which they say put too much emphasis on testing at the expense of a richer, more diverse curriculum.

"Once again, the NAEP scores demonstrate that the nation cannot test its way to educational quality," says Monty Neill, co-director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. "Congress should follow the lead of the more than 60 national education, civil rights, and religious organizations that are calling for an overhaul of this damaging federal law."

Commenting on the 2004 NAEP results, learning experts say it's inherently more difficult to improve reading skills than to make gains in mathematics, because math skills can be taught in the classroom while reading comprehension often requires support at home.

"If the home is not reinforcing reading, it is much more difficult to learn it in school," says Jack Jennings of the Center on Education Policy, which has conducted the most extensive studies of NCLB. "Reading scores don't just measure schools. They're also a reflection of the values societies or families put on reading."

Nationwide, 38 percent of public school fourth-graders and 29 percent of eighth-graders still read below basic levels. For fourth-graders, state scores range from 32 percent reading below a basic level in Delaware to 67 percent reading below a basic level in the District of Columbia.

Another factor influencing reading scores is the surge in the number of immigrants. California identifies one-third of fourth-graders and 22 percent of eighth-graders as English-language learners.

The big debate on the future of NCLB will turn on whether data-driven instruction is the best way to improve student reading skills. "There's some evidence that having a more explicit, structured curriculum in the early grades generates better reading skills," says Catherine Snow, an expert on reading at Harvard University's School of Education. "[But] to some extent, the high-anxiety focus on reading scores may have narrowed student access to knowledge about the world that may also have improved their reading outcome."

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