US Report Card: Young readers make big gains

A national study gives some support to Bush policies but also suggests shortcomings.

US 9-year-olds are reading better than they have in 30 years, despite a tripling of the number of students from non-English-speaking homes - and the chasm in achievement between races in both reading and math is narrowing.

It's a sign that billions of dollars poured into early reading programs and standards-based reforms, especially in the past decade, may be making a difference. The results of a national Report Card - test results just released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress - suggest that more work is needed to make sure these gains continue in higher grades. Scores for 17-year-olds were flat. Still, the gains for the youngest level represent welcome positive news for US educators.

"This progress puts to rest the notion that achievement gaps are inevitable - expectations have increased, and students of color are rising to the challenge," said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, which helps poor schools improve student achievement. "The nation owes a debt of gratitude to the educators who believed in these young people and have taught them to higher levels."

Unlike other national assessments, NAEP uses the same test to measure how student achievement is changing over time. The reading assessment began in 1971 and the math assessment in 1973.

The results come as President Bush faces a backlash from states and schools across the nation over the testing requirements of his signature No Child Left Behind law, which was signed in law in 2002 but doesn't fully take effect until this fall. Administration officials and congressional supporters say these results show that, despite the furor, the effort is paying off for kids.

"Today's Report Card is proof that No Child Left Behind is working - it is helping to raise the achievement of young students of every race and from every type of family background," US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said in a statement.

But the new results, from tests taken in 2004, largely reflect conditions that predate No Child Left Behind.

Moves by states

For the past 15 years, a national consensus has emerged over how to teach reading to the youngest students, including rigorous instruction in phonics. An equally strong political consensus developed to carry it to the nation's classrooms. Beginning in states like Texas and North Carolina, governors - often with the strong backing of the business community - launched an overhaul of early learning, including rigorous testing.

Many states that once required elementary school teachers to complete only one reading class beefed up their teaching requirements. Cities such as Houston developed their own reading reforms, and trained teachers to deliver it.

For teachers and students, some of the changes were wrenching. Teachers' unions worried that the new regime forced teachers to teach to the test.

Moreover, critics charged that the new focus on bringing the lowest achieving students up to grade level would dim prospects for the rest. That concern, at least, is not supported by the new data, NAEP officials say.

"Reductions in the gaps between high and lower performing groups of students are all the more impressive since scores of the better performers continue to rise," says Darvin Winick, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which supervises the NAEP. "This is a 'win-win' situation that is not adequately recognized."

In other Report Card results: 13-year-olds scored higher in mathematics on average in 2004 than in any previous year, but there was no significant progress in reading between 1999 and 2004. The score gap between white and black students decreased 19 points since the first assessment was given in 1978, while the gap between white and Hispanic students decreased 12 points. (As a rule of thumb: A 10-point change is roughly equivalent to a grade change.)

The reading results for 17-year-olds showed no significant improvement, but the reading gap between white and black students decreased by 24 points between 1971 and 2004. For Hispanics, the reading gap narrowed by 11 points. But there have been no statistically significant changes at that level since 1999.

Some critics challenge whether the NAEP high school tests are taken seriously enough by students to give a fair picture of the most understudied group in public education.

A push for high school improvement

That the lack of progress for those with the most seat time in US schools is already fueling calls for more targeted reform on the higher grades. President Bush has called for extending the NCLB reforms into high school in his 2006 budget. This week, the National Association of Governors is launching its own version of high school reform. "In a sense, it's not surprising that we're making the biggest gains in elementary schools - that's where reformers have focused the lion's share of energy and resources," says Ms. Haycock of the Education Trust. "Now is the time to bring that energy to the secondary level."

Since 2001, Congress has directed more than $5 billion to new reading initiatives and more than $160 billion since 1980 to closing achievement gaps between rich and poor students. More than half the gains in the NAEP test's three-decade history have been made in the past five years.

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