Fourth-graders' reading scores `emergency of the first order'

Stagnant grades show few positive effects from reform efforts

April 07, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - America's fourth-grade reading scores have been stagnant for nearly a decade, and test results released yesterday show that the nation has yet to see positive results from big reform efforts in beginning reading.

Pupils across the country averaged 217 on a scale of 500 in the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). That average from testing in the spring of 2000 was unchanged from those of 1998 and 1992 and only 3 points higher than average NAEP scores in 1994.

In releasing the scores at the U.S. Education Department, officials used such terms as "discouraging" and "distressing."

President Bush's new education secretary, Rod Paige, who established a reputation for installing effective reading programs as superintendent in Houston, said the NAEP scores represent "an emergency of the first order. These results just are not good enough. Not in America."

Paige used the occasion to promote Bush's $5 billion "Reading First" agenda, which will go to Capital Hill budget committees Monday. "The president's plan proposes bold changes in how our children learn to read," Paige said. "He takes the latest research in cognitive development and concentrates federal aid where it can do the most good."

Other officials said that despite years of reform efforts in reading, proven programs aren't getting into the classrooms of primary schools or in preschool programs.

"The frustrating thing is that we know what works," said G. Reid Lyon, head of reading research at the National Institutes of Health, "but there's a lack of alignment between what we know about effective reading instruction and what is actually taking place in the classroom."

Lyon, who has emerged as a chief adviser on reading policy to the Bush administration, attributed much of the problem to poor teacher education. "We have got to find a way to translate 20 years of research findings into teacher preparation and into the classroom," Lyon said. "Teacher education is the toughest nut to crack."

Marilyn Whirry, a Manhattan Beach, Calif., high school instructor and this year's U.S. Teacher of the Year, agreed. In her travels across the country, she said, "I've seen tremendous inconsistencies. In many schools, wonderful things are happening. In some places, however, the reform movement hasn't become an integral part of the teaching of reading. There are still students using ditto sheets."

When the 1998 NAEP reading scores were released, Mark Musick, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, confidently predicted that the heavy emphasis on reading reform in Maryland and other states and local districts would soon produce a bloom of rising scores.

But yesterday Musick was much less optimistic. "I've come to believe that the rhetoric about emphasizing reading in early grades is still very much ahead of the reality of what's happening in classrooms," Musick said. "I'm still encouraged that we're going to see improvement, but I'm disappointed that it's taking longer than I thought."

Unlike previous NAEP reading tests, the 2000 version provided no data for eighth-graders and high school seniors and no state-level data. (States will have to wait until next year for that.)

Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said she assumed that several reading reform measures in Maryland - including an expansion of required reading courses in teacher education - would translate into respectable NAEP scores. Third-grade reading scores on the state's tests, the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP), "looked better in 2000, and that's encouraging to me." NAEP and MSPAP require students to perform tasks and to write about reading as part of the assessment.

Paige said Bush's education plan would invest $5 billion over five years "to ensure that every child in America can read by the third grade."

Bush's plan is "science-based," said Paige, referring to Bush's proposal to target funds at low-performing schools and to support only programs proved effective by researchers. Bush and Paige favor phonics-based programs that deliver instruction directly and systematically. Those are the programs, said Lyon, that have proved effective in two decades of NIH research, much of it conducted in Houston and elsewhere in the home state of both Bush and Paige.

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