Can Johnny read yet?

Latest US scores tell a mixed story

The headlines have appeared so often that they may be losing the power to shock.

Once again US students have taken a reading test, and once again the results of that test are being called "mixed," with some pundits identifying them as proof of failure, and others insisting they demonstrate limited progress.

The public could be forgiven for experiencing an overwhelming sensation of "déjà vu" last week when the scores of the federal government's National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test were released.

But for a nation that has been struggling for almost two decades now to raise its academic achievement levels, it's almost impossible not to link test scores to a single, compelling question: Are the efforts being made to reform US schools doing any good?

What the numbers revealed was that the nation's fourth-graders have made some progress in reading throughout the 1990s, while 12th-graders are actually doing worse. At the eighth-grade level, the lowest performing students made gains since 1998, when the test was last administered. Overall, however, eighth-grade scores remained fairly stagnant.

There also was evidence that in some states - particularly in the Southeast - students are reading better. Also encouraging was evidence that in some areas and at some levels the gap between the reading skills of white students and minority students is narrowing.

But overall, for many reformers, the results seemed mildly encouraging at best.

"We don't need a little bit of improvement, we need radical improvement," says Lisa Graham Keegan, CEO of the Education Leaders Council in Washington. "You cannot look at these numbers and call it a success. This is evidence that we don't have enough of the right thing in place."

Not necessarily, says Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington. The test results can also be read as proof that the reforms currently in place in US schools are the right ones, but simply haven't been in place long enough.

Mr. Jennings points to the fact that elementary schools - where more progress was evidenced - have received more attention in recent years than middle or high schools. He also sees the progress of some southeastern states (where governors began to focus on education reform earlier) as proof that consistent attention over time is essential.

"It shows that if you concentrate on the goal you will show results eventually," says Jennings. "If we stick at it we'll get there."

The NAEP tests, sometimes called "the nation's report card," are viewed as important because they are one of the few vehicles offering a broad, national perspective on progress.

They will become a far more vital part of the national dialogue on education, however, as a result of the 2002 No Child Left Behind federal education act. Starting in 2003, all 50 states will be required to participate in NAEP exams and to make NAEP scores available. NAEP assessments in math and reading will be done every two years thereafter.

NAEP scores will become of vital concern to politicians and school administrators alike as they are more and more looked to as yardsticks of progress in education reform.

But some education analysts argue that it's easy to overvalue the results of a test like NAEP, and perhaps to overlook the importance of other assessments.

Some also wonder if the public and the press aren't more captivated by bad news than by good. They point to the lack of attention given to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study administered by the International Study Center at Boston College earlier this year.

According to PIRLS, the US ranked ninth in a study of fourth-grade readers in 35 industrialized nations. Although students in Sweden, England, Canada, and Hungary all scored higher, US students managed to outpace their counterparts in Germany, Singapore, Hong Kong, France, and Israel.

Yet the fairly positive results received scant media attention.

The belief that there is a reading crisis in the US seems fairly entrenched in public consciousness today, and many educators would argue that it should be. There is less consensus, however, as to what is causing such a crisis and what its cure should be.

Some educators are disappointed that more attention is not paid to the extensive background research released with the NAEP test results.

NAEP researchers also collect information on students that regularly demonstrates the importance of the home environment. Consistently, students are seen to perform better if they have books at home, are read to by their parents, and watch less TV.

The fact that students in higher grades show less progress may also be further proof that socioeconomic conditions play a major role in student reading skills. "The impact of poverty shows up more and more in upper grades," says Paul Reville, lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass.

When it comes to teaching reading in the US, trends come and go, but in recent years marked attention has been paid to the mechanics of the subject.

Kids need more help learning to "decode," the argument goes. In the more liberal 1960s and 1970s, there was more focus on drumming up enthusiasm for reading by offering students a rich variety of books - which left some educators worried that basic skills were neglected, leaving US students in the dust ever since.

Focus on "decoding" is good, says E.D. Hirsch, professor emeritus of education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. But it won't be enough to strengthen reading.

US reading scores began to decline in the 1940s, says Professor Hirsch, a development he links to the lack of coherent curriculum. Students today may not have enough background knowledge to make sense of what they read, he suggests.

That struggle for meaning becomes even tougher in an era of high immigration, when there are a record number of non-English-speaking students, says Gary Natriello, professor of sociology at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York.

And immigration is not the only pressure on US schools today, he adds. Changes in the workforce, advances in information technology, huge swings in state budgets, the need to prepare students for an uncertain economic future - all of these forces also weigh on the nation's schools and educators.

That's one of the dangers of using test scores as the measure of progress, he says.

"Folks in schools are very busy while also trying to focus on reading and math," he says. Meanwhile, he adds, students are applying to college in higher numbers than ever before, even as high schools graduate classes that are more diverse than at any time in the past. Those are also signs of progress, he says, but "that's not reflected in the test scores and we sometimes lose sight of that."

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