Just The Facts: Illiteracy

Published June 1, 2004

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reports student achievement in terms of four levels: Below Basic, Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. The last two categories are usually combined into “Proficient or Above.”

A “Proficient” student is one who can understand challenging subject matter and apply it to real-world situations, a level NAEP expects all students to be capable of reaching. A “Basic” student is one who has only a partial mastery of the skills and knowledge required for proficient work. Although not defined by NAEP, a “Below Basic” student would be one who has not even a partial mastery of the skills and knowledge required for proficient work–in other words, an illiterate.

The eight charts on this page show the striking extent and magnitude of “Below Basic” illiteracy as reported last December in NAEP’s 2003 Trial Urban Assessment for 8th-grade reading achievement in public schools. The base reference chart is Figure 2, which shows the percentage of students achieving at “Below Basic,” “Basic,” and “Proficient or Above” for the nation as a whole, for 10 of the nations’s largest urban school districts, and for a composite urban district. The 12 reporting units are ranked in ascending order of the overall percentage of students at “Below Basic.”

Figure 1 shows 4th-grade reading achievement and, by comparison with Figure 2, demonstrates there is little overall change in the percentage of “Proficient” readers between 4th- and 8th-grades. Figures 3 through 8 show the breakout of reading achievement by whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians/Pacific Islanders, and by eligibility for free/reduced price school lunch.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

Details of the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s 2003 Trial Urban District Assessment of Reading are available online at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/reading/results2003/districtresults.asp.

Fig. 1 - 4th Grade Reading - All Students Fig. 2 - 8th Grade Reading - All Students

Fig. 3 - 8th Grade Reading - Black Students Fig. 4 - 8th Grade Reading - White Students

Fig. 5 - 8th Grade Reading - Hispanic Students Fig. 6 - 8th Grade Reading - Asian/Pacific Islander

Fig. 7 - 8th Grade Reading - Eligible For Free Lunch Fig. 8 - 8th Grade Reading - Not Eligible For Free Lunch