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National Reading Scores In (And It Ain’t Pretty)

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Reporters Nick Anderson and Bill Turque pull no punches in their March 24, 2010, Washington Post article called “Reading Scores Stall Despite ‘No Child Left Behind,’ Report Finds.”

They begin: “The nation’s students are mired at a basic level of reading in fourth and eighth grades, their achievement in recent years largely stagnant, according to a federal report Wednesday that suggests a dwindling academic payoff from the landmark No Child Left Behind law.”


More information – and highly recommended reading for Parents at the Helm – can be found at

The Federal report of which they speak are scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The brightest spots, if one can call them that, came from Kentucky, a state that saw “a 4-point gain in fourth grade over two years and a 5-point gain in eighth grade,” and Washington, D.C., where a score “surge” from 197 to 202 in fourth grade still leaves the schools woefully behind the “public average” of 220. This is on a 500-point scale.

Basic arithmetic tells us, then, that an average national score of 220 doesn’t reach 50%, and a 5-point surge is a single percentage point. Yay.

U. S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan chimed in: “The reading scores demonstrate that students aren’t making the progress necessary to compete in the global economy…By this and many other measures, our students aren’t on a path to graduate high school ready to succeed in college and the workplace.” (The incredible number of students taking remedial courses at colleges has already proved this clearly.)

The report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that fourth-grade reading scores stalled after the law took effect in 2002, rose modestly in 2007, then stalled again in 2009. Eighth-grade scores showed a slight uptick since 2007 — 1 point on a scale of 500 — but no gain over the seven-year span when President George W. Bush’s program for school reform was in high gear.

No Child Left Behind, which Bush signed in 2002, aimed to spur a revolution in reading. The government spent billions of dollars to improve instruction and required schools to monitor student progress every year toward an ambitious goal of eliminating achievement gaps.

Yet an authoritative series of federal tests has found only isolated gains — notably including the District’s long-troubled public schools — but no great leaps for the nation.

“We’ve had a real focus on reading, and we’re stuck,” said Susan Pimentel, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the tests. The report, she said, “points to an issue, and we’ve got to as practitioners figure what’s going on. I think students aren’t reading enough. And I think they aren’t reading enough of the good stuff. That’s true in grade 4, and that’s true in grade 8, on up.”

Last fall, the government reported sluggish gains in math in a companion series of federal tests. Taken together, the reading and math results are likely to be seized on by would-be reformers as evidence that a new approach should be taken. But what that should be remains an open question.

Interesting that at the moment I happen to be reading Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. In a chapter focused on New York City schools after the city adopted a “business model” for running the system, Ravitch reports that “on the NAEP, students in New York City made no significant gains…between 2003 and 2007…in fourth-grade reading, in eight-grade reading, and in eight-grade mathematics.”

When the system was brought to task on the front page of the New York Times, Ravitch continues, “The New York City Department of Education responded to the stagnant results on the federal tests with a press release claiming that ‘New York City students made impressive gains’ on NAEP. The flat scores on the national tests, the chancellor explained to reporters, reflected that students prepared for the state tests (emphasis added), which were aligned with the state standards. But both the state and the federal tests assessed generic skills in reading and mathematics, not specific content (such as works of literature); the skills should have been transferable. If they were not transferable and were useful only for taking state tests, then students were not prepared to read college textbooks, job-training manuals, or anything else that was not specific to the state tests.” (Hear, hear!)

By the way, these dismal reading and mathematic scores are a result of a singular focus on those two subjects so intense that other elements of “schooling,” such as history, social studies, science and even recess have, in many places, fallen by the wayside in pursuit of the No Child Left Behind Law’s goal of bringing every student to “proficiency” in math and reading by 2014. (Proficient being third out of four possible categories: below basic, basic, proficient and advanced.)

We’ll never know, but the scores really couldn’t be too much worse if kids were allowed to read and enjoy what interests them.

This provides us with a golden example of the difference between schooling and education. We have a very expensive school system, now falling apart at the seams, that has for years failed to educate. Given that how to change this failing system “remains an open question” among would-be reformers, school-aged children will be better off if their parents grab the helm, because no one else is.

More information – and highly recommended reading for Parents at the Helm – can be found at

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3 Responses to “National Reading Scores In (And It Ain’t Pretty)”

  1. Nancy says:

    Here is an actual sentence from a written assignment, Abnormal Psychology class. From a college sophmore!

    "Durring the first session dr. Fehrman gave sofia three components of how here thereapy would progress the doctor told her one componient would ivolve surveying all the different ways in which sofias life had been changed by her current fears and anxieties paying particular attention to activities along a scale ranging from least threatening to most."

    One of the prerequisites for my class is English 111, a composition class. So, this student has allegedly passed that English class, and still produces garbage like this. Everyone taking that class wants to be either a schoolteacher, a social worker, a psychologist, or a nurse.

    God help us all.

  2. Nancy, thank you so much for sharing this. "God help us all" is a term that very often comes to my mind as I read news and books about what's going on in schools today. Thank you for being here!

  3. […] that sneak the chores inside and the kids will think it’s fun! Linda inspires parents to take the helm in their children’s education. With the way the public schools are headed, I can see why she challenges them to do something […]

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