AMERICAN lifestyles, from television watching to parental neglect, are to blame for the shrinking time that children spend reading either for school or pleasure, suggests the latest national assessment of students' reading habits.
The United States Department of Education study showed little change in reading ability, but between 1988 and 1990 the number of eighth-graders who reported not reading in their spare time increased from 19 to 30 percent.
One reason for the fall-off is that parents don't take the time to read to their children, said Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, who released the report late last week.
"The main result of this report is to say ... that, with a few simple changes in the way we live, we can make dramatically different strides in how our children read," Mr. Alexander said.
Calling the statistics troubling, President Bush agreed with Alexander. He told an audience in Marietta, Ga., last week that the "way to help these kids is to have strong family values."
While the administration emphasized the need for more involvement by parents, some educators are saying issues such as community development and adult illiteracy need to be addressed first.
The closing of local libraries and the lack of money for new books send students the wrong message about the importance of communication, said Sharon Robinson, director of the National Education Association's Center for Innovation.
"The American people are now getting blamed for low reading scores," Ms. Robinson said. "In reality, many parents can't read themselves, ... or they don't have the money to buy even a comic book or magazine to read to their kids."
The report, prepared by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, was based on studies of 13,000 students in 1988 and 25,000 students in 1990 in grades four, eight, and 12 at public and private schools.
Other findings include:
* One-fourth of fourth graders said they watched six or more hours of television a day. Overall, however, television viewing among all students dropped slightly between 1988 and 1990.
* Nineteen percent of fourth-graders in 1990 reported never reading outside of school, compared with 10 percent in 1988.
* Twenty-five percent of the fourth-graders and 20 percent of the eighth-graders said they never talked about what they read in class.
* One-fourth of the eighth-graders and more than a third of the 12th-graders reported using the library about once a year.
The country is a long way from seeing improvements in the reading skills of students, says Chester E. Finn Jr., director of the Educational Excellence Network. The decline in reading habits won't hit home to many parents until they are shown individual reports about their children, he explained.
"We need to bring the data down to the home level ... to let parents see how Johnny and Susie are doing," Mr. Finn said.
The NAEP report was based on the performance of groups of students, not individuals.