Seven Myths about Literacy in the United States
Serious problems exist with reading achievement in many United States schools. However, much of the commonly accepted wisdom about the academic performance of United States students is false. The best evidence we have on the reading crisis indicates that no crisis exists on average in United States reading. The purpose of this digest is to investigate seven of the most prevalent--and--damaging myths about literacy achievement in the United States.
Myth 1: Reading Achievement in the United States has Declined in the Past Twenty-Five Years
The best evidence on reading achievement in the United States comes from a national system of examinations established back in the late 1960s by the federal government to determine how United States schoolchildren were performing in a variety of school subjects. These exams, known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are important barometers of educational achievement. They are given nationally to a representative sample of United States children.
When the test was first administered in 1971, the average reading proficiency score for nine-year-old children was 208, for thirteen-year-old children was 255, and for seventeen year-old children was 285. The results of the most recent administration of the test (1996) revealed that the average reading proficiency score for nine-year-old children was 212, for thirteen-year-old children was 259, and for seventeen-year-old children was 287. These scores indicate that, despite a few minor shifts, reading achievement has either stayed even or increased over the past thirty years.
Myth 2: Forty Percent of U.S. Children Can't Read at a Basic Level
During the early years of the NAEP tests, the Department released only the raw scores for each age level on its 0 to 500 scale, with no designations of which score was thought to constitute "basic knowledge" or "proficiency." The designers of the NAEP test later decided that simply reporting the raw scores was no longer adequate in order to judge the progress of United States schools. The Department decided it would determine how well students were reading by establishing the minimum score constituting "below basic," "basic," "proficient," and "advanced" reading. The "basic" level for fourth-grade reading, for example, was fixed at a score of 208. In 1994, 40% of United States children scored below the "basic" cutoff of 208.
The problem with this approach lies in "objectively" determining where these cutoff points should be. Glass (1978), after reviewing the various methods proposed for creating "minimal" criterion scores of performance, concluded that all such efforts are necessarily arbitrary. Of course, such arbitrary cutoff points already exist in education and many other fields, but at least they are recognized as arbitrary and not given the status of absolute or objective levels of competence. In 1991, the General Accounting Office (GAO) examined how the NAEP defined their levels of proficiencies and found their methods to be questionable (Chelimsky, 1993).
Reprinted with the permission of the Education Resources Information Center.
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