U.S. pupils improve in math, but reading gap has widened

Poor readers are falling further behind good ones, bipartisan panel says

April 09, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

The nation's schoolchildren are making greater progress in mathematics than in reading, and the achievement gap between good and poor readers has been widening, according to a report to be released today.

The report by the National Education Goals Panel - a bipartisan group created by the Bush administration in 1989 to set education goals for the year 2000 - is based on voluntary periodic testing from 1992 to 1998.

Researchers who conducted the study praised four states - Connecticut, Kentucky, Mississippi and North Carolina - that were reducing gaps in performance, but said they did not know why the nation's pupils are doing better in math than in reading.

"Something we're doing in math is working, but something is missing in reading," said John Barth. One explanation, he said, is that "we've been focusing longer on improving mathematics."

Another is that there is greater agreement on how mathematics skills should be taught, experts say. Specialists disagree over how to teach reading, and many children receive little direct instruction after elementary school.

In reading, "there isn't the same coherence in the professional community," said Emily O. Wurtz, acting executive director of the National Education Goals Panel, which conducted the study.

Although average reading scores increased, poor readers as a whole failed to improve, the study shows.

"This shows that while our best readers are getting better, we need to pay attention to what is happening with our weak readers," said Indiana Gov. Frank L. O'Bannon, chairman of the National Education Goals Panel.

State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick called the reading gap between white and minority pupils in Maryland "perhaps our most serious problem."

Grasmick said 3- and 4-year-olds must begin literacy training in day care or Head Start.

"After that, it's an uphill battle for the poorest kids and those in the cities. By the time they're tested by NAEP in the fourth grade, it's too late for many of them," she said.

The study, the first to compare high- and low-achieving students across seven years of NAEP testing, indicates:

From 1990 to 1996, the average pupil achievement score in eighth-grade math improved in 28 states and did not decline in any.

The gap in math scores between the top- and bottom-performing fourth-graders grew in Delaware and the District of Columbia. The math achievement gap for eighth-graders grew in the District of Columbia and in Montana.

In two states - Maryland and Alabama - the eighth-grade math achievement gap between white and minority students grew.

Good readers are getting better and weak readers are losing ground.

In 18 of 36 states, the performance of the lowest-scoring quarter of fourth-grade readers declined from 1992 to 1998. Those in the top quarter improved in 12 states, including Maryland, and declined in none.

Overall, achievement by fourth-grade readers improved in seven states, while four states showed a decline.

The reading gap between black and white pupils -the focus of much attention in recent years - remained about the same. On a scale of 500, whites scored an average of 32 points above blacks in 1992 and 33 points higher in 1998.

The study did not take into account NAEP fourth-grade reading results for the year 2000. However, those scores also showed a widening disparity between able readers and poor readers in the four NAEP reading tests since 1992.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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