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State of Reading Reform

Can Johnny Read Yet?

By Marjorie Coeyman/The Christian Science Monitor
June 24, 2003

(NEW YORK)The headlines have appeared so often that they may be losing the power to shock.

Once again US students have taken a reading test, and once again the results of that test are being called "mixed," with some pundits identifying them as proof of failure, and others insisting they demonstrate limited progress.

The public could be forgiven for experiencing an overwhelming sensation of "deja vu" last week when the scores of the federal government's National Assessment of Educational Progress reading test were released.

But for a nation that has been struggling for almost two decades now to raise its academic achievement levels, it's almost impossible not to link test scores to a single, compelling question: Are the efforts being made to reform US schools doing any good?

What the numbers revealed was that the nation's fourth-graders have made some progress in reading throughout the 1990s, while 12th-graders are actually doing worse. At the eighth-grade level, the lowest performing students made gains since 1998, when the test was last administered. Overall, however, eighth-grade scores remained fairly stagnant.

There also was evidence that in some states - particularly in the Southeast - students are reading better. Also encouraging was evidence that in some areas and at some levels the gap between the reading skills of white students and minority students is narrowing.

But overall, for many reformers, the results seemed mildly encouraging at best.

"We don't need a little bit of improvement, we need radical improvement," says Lisa Graham Keegan, CEO of the Education Leaders Council in Washington. "You cannot look at these numbers and call it a success. This is evidence that we don't have enough of the right thing in place."

Not necessarily, says Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington. The test results can also be read as proof that the reforms currently in place in US schools are the right ones, but simply haven't been in place long enough.

Mr. Jennings points to the fact that elementary schools - where more progress was evidenced - have received more attention in recent years than middle or high schools. He also sees the progress of some southeastern states (where governors began to focus on education reform earlier) as proof that consistent attention over time is essential.

"It shows that if you concentrate on the goal you will show results eventually," says Jennings. "If we stick at it we'll get there."

The NAEP tests, sometimes called "the nation's report card," are viewed as important because they are one of the few vehicles offering a broad, national perspective on progress.

They will become a far more vital part of the national dialogue on education, however, as a result of the 2002 No Child Left Behind federal education act. Starting in 2003, all 50 states will be required to participate in NAEP exams and to make NAEP scores available. NAEP assessments in math and reading will be done every two years thereafter.

NAEP scores will become of vital concern to politicians and school administrators alike as they are more and more looked to as yardsticks of progress in education reform.

But some education analysts argue that it's easy to overvalue the results of a test like NAEP, and perhaps to overlook the importance of other assessments.

Some also wonder if the public and the press aren't more captivated by bad news than by good. They point to the lack of attention given to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study administered by the International Study Center at Boston College earlier this year.

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Photo Credit for Bearden Elementary: Maude Schuyler Clay
Photo Credit for Walton Elementary: Chris Hamilton

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