- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2003

The District’s schoolchildren rank as the worst readers in the country and only slightly better in some grades than non-English-speaking children in the territories of Guam, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa, according to a new national report.

The verdict of “The Nation’s Report Card: Reading 2000,” issued yesterday by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), is that the nation’s fourth- and eighth-graders generally showed slight improvement in reading ability over the past several years. But the nation’s high school seniors entering the work force or headed to college were worse readers than 12th-graders in 1998.

Meanwhile, the District’s schoolchildren in all grades are slipping backward as other jurisdictions improve, despite per-pupil spending and teacher salaries that are among the highest in the country.

Neither Superintendent Paul Vance nor any other D.C. school official returned calls for comment on the report, which shows that more than two-thirds of the city’s fourth-graders and more than half of its eighth-graders had “below basic” reading ability last year, according to NAEP tests.

“Below basic” means the children could not demonstrate an understanding of what they read.

Only 10 percent of D.C. fourth- and eighth-graders last year were “at or above proficient” reading ability — the same percentage of fourth-graders as 10 years ago, but 2 percentage points fewer eighth-graders than in 1992.

To be proficient, students must “demonstrate an overall understanding of text, providing inferential as well as literal information,” and scoring 238 on the fourth-grade test and 281 on the eighth-grade test. The average scores for D.C. students were 191 for fourth grade and 240 for eighth grade.

When compared with average reading scores of city students throughout the country, D.C. fourth-graders scored 21 points below average and eighth-graders 18 points below average.

The District’s percentage of “below basic” readers also was 20 percentage points higher than the national average for city students, even though the District’s $9,650 per-pupil cost and average teacher salary of $48,651 topped all but a few states, according to the report.

Bill Caritj, the District’s assistant superintendent for educational accountability, dismissed the NAEP results, saying, “This is a very diverse community.”

He said D.C. students have shown improvement through the Stanford Achievement Test, but he did not specify the results.

“We are improving, we have improved [under NAEP] from 179 [for fourth-graders in 1994] to 191 [in 2002],” he said. “And that’s good, and the other indicators such as the Stanford Achievement Test suggest that we’re at the national average.”

Virginia fourth-graders ranked fourth in reading ability nationwide, behind Vermont, Connecticut, and Massachusetts at No. 1. Virginia eighth-graders ranked sixth behind Department of Defense schools on military bases, Maine, Kansas, Massachusetts and Vermont at No. 1.

Maryland fourth-graders ranked 28th and eighth-graders 18th.

“There is one group among the 12th-graders that is having particular problems: the boys,” said Mark R. Musick, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board and president of the Southern Regional Education Board.

“Over the past decade, the reading achievement of male high school seniors has fallen more steeply than among female students,” he said. “Nationwide, just 28 percent of male 12th-graders read at the proficient level, compared to 44 percent of the female high school seniors.”

The report is cause for both celebration and concern, Education Secretary Rod Paige said.

“I’m concerned that not a lot has changed since 1992, when this NAEP assessment, the most comprehensive, challenging ever, was first given,” he said in a statement.

While fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores have improved nationally, Mr. Paige said, scores for 12th-graders have gone south.

“There are no scientific answers to why our high school seniors have performed so poorly on this reading assessment, but we’re still searching for solutions to these daunting challenges,” he said.

Education Undersecretary Eugene W. Hickok said at a press conference that he was encouraged by sharply improved average scores of black and Hispanic fourth-graders and lower-performing students in fourth and eighth grades.

But he acknowledged the “relatively dismal performance of 12th-graders” and the majority of students whose tests showed serious reading deficiencies.

“When you have 60 percent not proficient, the nation has a major, major challenge before it,” he said.

Mr. Hickok said the administration’s insistence on scientifically based reading instruction and testing accountability from third through eighth grades is causing “a major culture shift” in the nation’s schools.

“The focus is on what works,” he said. “That will have an impact. We hope it will.”

The NAEP reading report’s mixed results included these findings:

• Less than one-third of fourth- and eighth-graders nationwide could understand and analyze challenging reading material at “proficient” or “advanced” skill levels. Thirty-six percent of high school seniors scored “at or above proficient,” a 4 percentage-point drop from 1998.

• Black and Hispanic fourth-graders narrowed the gap with white students, but the reading achievement gap among the races remains large: 41 percent of white students scored “proficient,” compared with 15 percent of Hispanics and 12 percent of blacks. In 1998, 37 percent of whites, 13 percent of Hispanics and 10 percent of blacks scored “proficient.”

Achievement problems in schools are made more urgent by an increasing number of minority students Mr. Musick called “disadvantaged” and children identified as “limited English proficient.”

He said Hispanics and American Indians, who made up 25 percent of NAEP’s national fourth-grade sample in 1992, were 34 percent of the sample last year. Similarly, “limited English proficient” students were 1 percent of the 1992 sample but 6 percent of the sample last year.

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