US 'report card' on reading: 8th-graders gain, 4th-graders don't

Reading among 4th-graders did not improve for the first time since 2003, the latest NAEP scores show. The report, known as the 'nation's report card,' shows a slight gain among 8th-graders.

For the first time since 2003, America’s fourth-graders failed to make any improvements in reading, the latest NAEP scores show.

For the first time since 2003, America’s fourth-graders failed to make any improvements in reading, according to a report released Wednesday from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the "nation’s report card."

For most of the past decade, elementary school students have made steady progress on reading, math, and other subjects, while eighth-graders and high-schoolers have shown more mixed performance. Between 2007 and 2009, it was the eighth-graders who made some slight gains, while fourth-grade scores were virtually unchanged.

Most achievement gaps – between whites and blacks, whites and Hispanics, boys and girls, public school and private school students, and low-income students and their middle- or upper-income peers – also remained unchanged compared with 2007 and with 1992, when NAEP was first administered. The black-white gap for fourth-graders and the male-female gap for eighth-graders have narrowed some since 1992.

Overall, “we’ve stopped making gains, we’ve stopped closing gaps ... and the last thing we need right now is an educational recession,” says Amy Wilkins, vice president of Education Trust in Washington, which works to close achievement and opportunity gaps. “It’s quite clear ... that a big part of the way out of our [national economic] troubles is an educated workforce.”

Some achievement gaps narrow in some states

One glimmer of hope in the nation's report card, Ms. Wilkins says, is that individual states have shown progress in closing gaps. Among Florida fourth-graders, for instance, the black-white gap and the income gap have narrowed. “It is absolutely possible to move these kids [educationally].... It’s a matter of attention to the issue, not the ability of the students,” she says.

In the national snapshot of eighth-grade reading, 32 percent reached “proficient” (the target for the grade level) or higher in 2009. Among fourth-graders, a third scored at least proficient, while 67 percent reached the “basic” level.

While it’s still too soon to determine a clear long-term trend, the results in many ways echo the NAEP math results this past fall, which showed a plateau for fourth-graders and a slight rise for eighth-graders. A number of education experts suggest this is a sign that the low-hanging fruit -- the easiest gains to be made in education reform – has already been plucked.

“It’s sad to me that the [fourth-grade] scores didn’t change at all,” says Kim Kozbial-Hess, a fourth-grade teacher from Ohio and a member of the National Assessment Governing Board. “It makes me wonder what’s going on in the classroom, and what we can do to improve it.”

What's up with boys?

The persistent reading gap for boys, coupled with girls’ higher rates of high school and college graduation, raises concerns that “something is happening with boys that’s holding them back in school,” says Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a research group in Washington that recently released a state-by-state gender gap report.

Ms. Kozbial-Hess encourages teachers to use tools on the NAEP website to match their classroom strategies with NAEP frameworks. Fourth-graders, for instance, are expected to recognize information in a reading passage that explains a character’s behavior. Eighth-graders are asked to explain aspects of a narrative poem and to interpret an author’s point in a persuasive essay.

The 2009 test challenged students with more high-quality literature and a broader range of texts – including poetry for fourth-graders. The new framework better measures skills such as evaluating informational texts.

“These are the things that will bring about that critical thinking that we need for our kids,” Kozbial-Hess says.

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