Willingham: What NAEP reading scores really show
By Daniel Willingham
As Chad Aldeman pointed out at the Quick and the Ed, many major newspapers missed the story on the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress scores. The New York Times bemoaned that fourth-grade reading scores have barely increased since the early 1990s.
Aldeman pointed out that reading scores look somewhat better if you separate the data by race, as shown here.
The percentage of Hispanic test-takers increased between 1992 and 2008 and Hispanics, on average, score lower than Whites. Hence the overall mean score was pulled down by the shift in demographics. In fact, the increase in the mean score is smaller than the increase in any of the subgroups.
Aldeman is definitely right that the picture looks better with the data disaggregated.
But I think the more important part of this story is the utter lack of progress in 8th grade and 12th grade reading, which the Times mentions only briefly and Aldeman not at all.
Unlike the fourth-grade scores, things don’t look much different when the data are disaggregated, as shown for eighth graders:
And for twelfth graders:
If fourth grade scores have improved at least somewhat in the last 15 years, why don’t these same fourth graders show better scores when they get to eighth and twelfth grade?
Fourth grade scores have been improving because we’ve gotten better at teaching kids how to decode--that is, how to translate letters into sounds. In the fourth grade some kids are good decoders and some are not, so differences in reading scores are largely differences in decoding.
By upper elementary school, most kids are fluent decoders so reading score differences are not due to differences in decoding. They are due to differences in comprehension.
Comprehension differences are mostly due to differences in background knowledge, a point I’ve made here before. Thus, the problem is not, as Susan Pimentel, a member of the NAEP governing board describes it that “We’re not asking them to read nearly enough.”
In fact, Americans are reading more text than they ever have before. And kids in lower elementary already spend half their time on language arts, and less than ten percent of their time on social studies and science, combined.
The belief that kids will be better readers if we simply get them to read more is rooted in the belief that reading comprehension is a transferable skill that, once mastered, applies to any text. That’s true of decoding, but not of comprehension.
What’s needed is a substantial knowledge base. Knowledge of the content they are likely to encounter when reading the sorts of materials we expect them to read confidently: newspapers, magazines, and serious books.
That knowledge should be accumulated beginning in Pre-K, with read-alouds, activities, field trips, and the like. It should continue throughout their education.
Until we start paying more attention to content, expect flat reading scores.
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| April 5, 2010; 12:10 PM ET
Categories: Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Reading | Tags: Daniel Willingham, NAEP, guest bloggers, reading
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