Are Reading Scores Slipping?

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Updated on Apr 13, 2010

The state of children’s literacy in the U.S. is a significant concern these days. And this concern has led to an aggressive push to raise test scores, which has left many families and teachers reeling.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) recently released its 2009 report known as The Nation’s Report Card for reading in 4th and 8th grade. According to the report, 8th graders across the nation have made some improvements in reading comprehension, but overall results for 4th graders were unchanged. (Results are based on representative samples of 178,800 4th graders from 9,530 schools and 160,900 8th graders from 7,030 schools from across the states.)

If reading scores have improved little if any in the past few years, has all the pushing and testing been in vain? Are we expecting too much from our children?

According to William Harvey, Executive Director of the International Reading Association, the answer is no. “The lower you set the expectations, the lower the performance,” Harvey says. “We don’t want to dumb down education—we want to challenge children to do better.”

Harvey notes that the U.S. ranks quite low in terms of literacy skills in developed countries. (In fact, the U.S. is at the bottom of the top 20 developed countries, according to a 2009 United Nations Development Program report.) “From the standpoint of human capital development, we are disadvantaging our students because they are going to be competing with students from other countries,” Harvey says. “This is a real critical consideration for us in terms of our standing as a world leader.”

But it’s not for a lack of trying. And since 2001, there’s been such an extreme push with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) that there’s been something of a backlash in recent years. Teacher accountability was dramatically hiked up with NCLB, and many teachers began teaching to tests out of necessity—and though testing doesn’t actually begin until 3rd grade, even kindergarten teachers are preparing their students for the tests.

And this emphasis on test preparation is still happening.

Harvey describes an analogy he once heard from a friend who grew up on a farm: Just because you put animals on a scale doesn’t mean they’ll gain weight; you have to feed them if you want to see gains. In other words, frequent testing will not ensure increased test scores.

We have best practices when it comes to teaching young children to read, but education researchers and policy makers in the U.S. are still working to define and develop an overall education system that will reach every student in all states. How can one teacher raise up each child to achieve her greatest potential and also, at the same time, leave no child behind?

The results of The Nation’s Report Card show that there are still gaps among Caucasian, African American, and Hispanic students. “That’s a critical concern for us given the demography of this society,” Harvey says. “If those young people don’t have the skills to be successful, that’s going to pose tremendous problems for us down the road.”

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