NAEP Reading Scores Tell a Grim Tale

Published June 1, 2001

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is sometimes called the Nation’s Report Card.

If a child brought home a report card like the NAEP’s latest for fourth-grade reading, a conscientious parent would demand to know what was going on and would insist on a remedy.

According to NAEP year 2000 data, almost four of every 10 American fourth-graders (37 percent) scored “below basic,” meaning they were unable to read after completing their K-3 instruction.

For the past eight years, average reading scores have not budged off dreadful. Poor and minority children have fallen even further behind, despite billions in Title I spending to push them forward.

“After spending $125 billion of Title I money over 25 years,” said Secretary of Education Roderick R. Paige, “we have virtually nothing to show for it.”

Reading Gaps Galore

As alarming as the 37 percent “below basic” figure is, the numbers plunge into a catastrophic zone when they are broken down into subgroups. A horrendous 63 percent of black fourth-graders tested below basic in reading, as did 58 percent of Hispanic children, 47 percent of urban pupils, and 60 percent of children from impoverished homes.

The latest scores also show a continuing “gender gap,” but not the sort lamented by feminist organizations. Girls continue to score substantially higher in reading than boys (222 to 212 on a 500-point scale).

Students in private schools tended to score higher than students in public schools. In Catholic schools, for instance, 78 percent of fourth-graders were at or above basic, and 44 percent were at or above proficient.

Dismaying Trends

With NAEP sorting scores into three achievement levels–basic, proficient, and advanced–it should be noted that basic does not mean adequate. Basic is a bare-bones level, with children able to tell generally what they are reading about.

The nonpartisan National Assessment Governing Board holds that proficient is the achievement level all children should be able to reach. Proficient readers can draw conclusions, recognize relationships such as cause and effect, and understand larger concepts. Only 32 percent of the representative sample of students tested nationwide by NAEP scored at or above proficient.

The Report Card also indicated a worsening of the much-lamented racial/ethnic/poverty gap, despite the fact that narrowing the gap has been the focus of much of the federal government’s education policy and funding for decades.

Table 1 shows NAEP trends by racial/ethnic subgroups over the past eight years. As those figures show, only Asian-Americans are making significant progress in reading. Scores for white and black students are static, and those for Hispanic and American Indian students have fallen over the past decade.

Table 1
NAEP Fourth-Grade Reading Scores
1992 and 2000
  1992 2000
Asian/Pacific Islander 214 232
White 225 226
Hispanic 201 197
Black 193 193
American Indian 207 196

Another worrisome trend exposed by NAEP is the widening gap between high-performing and low-performing readers. The scores for students at the lofty position of the 90th percentile increased from 261 in 1992 to 264 in 2000; scores for students at the 10th percentile dropped from 170 to 163.

Public Policy Responses

In 1994, Congress enacted President Bill Clinton’s Goals 2000, and related initiatives like School-to-Work, for the express purpose of closing the gap. The latest Report Card shows that plan failed. Meanwhile, over the past 20 years inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending in the public schools has climbed from $5,000 to $8,000.

In his “No Child Left Behind” reform plan, President George W. Bush has proposed to allow parents with children stuck in chronically failing public schools to take up to $1,500 of Title I aid and apply it toward a range of private educational options, including tuition in a private school. At this writing, Capitol Hill negotiators want to limit that option to paying private tutors.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His e-mail address is [email protected].