A test for America's reading skills in NAEP scores

Latest test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reveal slow progress in reading skills since 1992. Fortunately, Congress may refocus the No Child Left Behind law on better teaching of literacy.

Having fun reading this sentence?

Probably not. But if you understand it at all, then you likely learned how to read very well as a child by reading for pleasure almost every day.

It turns out, regular “fun” reading is critical for progress in raising America’s education levels. In the latest “nation’s report card” issued today, fourth- and eighth-graders who routinely read for fun fared far better in their reading skills than those who didn’t.

Alas, that particular insight for parents and educators isn’t quite widespread enough yet – despite the best efforts of authors from Dr. Seuss to J.K. Rowling. The new test results from the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed little progress in reading skills since 1992, when such testing began.

For fourth-graders, reading performance rose only four points (on a 500-point scale) over the past two decades. For eighth-graders, the increase was a similarly disappointing five points.

In sharp contrast, the increases in the NAEP’s math scores were much higher – 28 and 21 points for those respective grades.

That’s quite a gap. Teaching of math has improved far more than literacy education – despite intense pressure for public schools to better perform under the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.

Overall, about a third of the students are proficient or better in reading. In math, 40 percent of the fourth-graders and 35 percent of the eighth-graders are at that level – a poor showing for both categories, despite differences in progress.

The No Child law, which requires schools to reach 100 percent proficiency in reading and math by 2014, is long overdue for reform itself. About 80 percent of schools would fail its requirements today – which is quite a statement about America’s ability to change education. In September, the Obama administration began to grant waivers to states – effectively ending the law – if they come up with new reforms. In the meantime, Congress has finally begun work on revising the act.

Last month, a Senate panel passed a version that would wisely focus on reading skills, including the wide gaps between whites and both blacks and Hispanics. Congress has recently gutted much of the funding for reading programs during cutting sprees.

The Senate bill would set up a competitive grant program for states to provide high-quality literacy instruction, especially to struggling students with disabilities or those who are still learning English. One provision would distribute books free of charge to low-income children in hopes their parents would read to them – for fun.

In this visual and digital age, reading remains fundamental. Even colleges are forced to offer remedial reading to many high school graduates.

Let’s hope every young American can read a sentence like this one someday.

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