From The L. A. Times

Poor Readers Have Gotten Worse, U.S. Study Shows

Education: Reforms since 1992 have failed to raise scores, except among high-achieving pupils.


Saturday, April 7, 2001

Duke Helfand
Martha Groves
Times Education Writers

Additional comments by TYSK

Test scores of the nation's weakest elementary school readers declined sharply over the last eight years even as the strongest readers showed solid gains, according to data released Friday by the U.S. Department of Education. [Another Clinton legacy? – TYSK]

The widening gap between the best and worst fourth-grade readers underscored the failure of a multibillion-dollar government investment to raise the woeful performance of the nation's lowest achievers, federal education officials said.

Moreover, the National Assessment of Educational Progress report showed that fourth-grade reading skills overall have not budged since 1992, despite massive school reform efforts in California and elsewhere.

Educators and government officials expressed chagrin over the disappointing results, known as the "nation's report card."

"After spending $125 billion . . . over 25 years, we have virtually nothing to show for it," said U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige, referring to the federal government's leading school program for poor children known as Title I. "Fewer than a third of fourth-graders can read at grade level."

Other educators said the gap between high and low achievers suggests that the nation is failing children who need the most help.

"It is a frightening sort of educational Darwinism," said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a Washington nonprofit organization that monitors achievement trends.

Leading educators said the results were particularly distressing given that researchers in recent years have reached a consensus on how students learn to read and how best to teach the skill. [These are the so-called "experts". – TYSK]

Numerous government-sponsored studies over the last decade have found that explicit instruction in sound-letter relationships and phonics practice, combined with exposure to rich literature, produce the best results.

That approach, however, has yet to find its way into many classrooms as teachers and those who train them continue to embrace unproven methods and programs.

"There's a cultural barrier that we need to overcome. It's an enormous problem all over the country," said Christopher T. Cross, president of the Council for Basic Education, a nonprofit organization in Washington that advocates education reforms.

"We're very bad in education about getting research into the hands of practitioners."

President Bush has offered a plan to invest huge sums in phonics instruction and test students annually beginning in the third grade.

The Bush administration's proposed Reading First initiative, contained in the budget that the President will put forward Monday, embraces the research-based approach to reading instruction.

It calls for spending $5 billion over five years to teach early reading skills in the nation's Head Start program and to train elementary school teachers in research-based instruction methods, with the goal of ensuring that all students read by third grade.

Friday's report is the latest in a succession of government studies designed to track the reading skills of the nation's fourth-graders.

For this round, 8,000 students from public and private schools in about 40 states were tested nationwide last year. Fourth-graders also took comparable exams in 1992, 1994 and 1998. In each case, students had to complete multiple-choice questions and write short answers and short essays. The scores are broken out by sex, race, region and income level.

Among the key findings:

• Overall, 32% of fourth-graders were deemed to be "proficient" or better in reading in 2000, a small but significant increase over 1992 results. "Proficient" indicates that students have an overall understanding of the texts they are reading.

Still, nearly four in 10 students nationally continue to read below a basic level, meaning they have serious problems understanding even simple texts, according to the analysis.

• The nation's top-performing fourth-graders — those at the 75th and 90th percentiles — made significant progress between 1992 and 2000. At the same time, the scores of the lowest performers — those at the 10th percentile — dropped during the period.

Haycock of the Education Trust said the results suggest that schools are focusing their efforts on students most likely to succeed, while neglecting all others.

• White and Asian/Pacific Islander students continued to outpace all other ethnic groups, affirming the vast gulf that has long existed between the groups. African Americans were the lowest performers.

• The Asian/Pacific Islander group showed phenomenal gains from 1992, whereas African Americans, Latinos, whites and Native Americans all held their own or lost ground. Not only did Asian/Pacific Islanders have the highest raw scores, but greater percentages of them also were deemed proficient.

• Sixty-three percent of African American fourth-graders, 60% of children in poverty and 47% of children in urban schools fell "below basic" in their skills, meaning they have less than even a "partial mastery" of the material.

• Suburban students outperformed those in cities and rural areas. And girls did better than boys once again, though neither group showed significant gains since 1992.

• Students who reported reading more either in school and for school work or for fun at home scored higher than students who read less.

One top literacy expert said it would be naive to have expected significant reading progress since 1992, given the freshness of the revolution in teaching methods. [Eight years in the making is no longer fresh! – TYSK]

"We have to figure out how to translate research into something people can use in classrooms," said Catherine Snow, a Harvard professor who chaired a panel that produced a report three years ago called "Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children."

"That means massive investment in professional development," Snow said. "It's a serious and long-term undertaking."


Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

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8 apr 2001