RAND Study Forecasts Problems Meeting National Reading Goals

Published March 1, 2005

U.S. students in grades 4-12 are not meeting state or national goals in reading achievement, a recently released RAND Corporation report warns. The authors forecast the achievement levels established by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) may not be realized by 2014, as the law requires.

The report also warns that failure to promptly address the low levels of literacy could hurt future employment and educational opportunities for American students.

“The job market places a premium on workers who have high-level literacy skills,” said Jennifer McCombs, a RAND policy analyst and lead author of the report, in a RAND news release dated December 16, 2004. “We are doing a disservice to our young people if we prepare them for anything less.”

Struggling to Read

The Carnegie Corporation of New York commissioned the study, “Meeting Literacy Goals Set by No Child Left Behind: A Long Uphill Road.” Published in December 2004, the study is the first to collect data from reading and writing assessments and student achievement from all 50 states and Washington, DC.

“A large number of American adolescents are struggling readers and results from achievement tests suggest much needs to be done to bring them all up to the proficient level by 2014,” McCombs said in the RAND news release.

NCLB requires that 100 percent of students be proficient in reading and math, as evidenced by passing state tests, by the year 2014. States must meet the goals or face penalties that could include having to develop school improvement plans, offering school choice, or facing a complete state takeover.

Tests chart reading and math progress annually in grades 3-8. By the 2005-06 school year, NCLB will mandate testing once in high school. A science test also will be required in the future.

In 2003, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) became compulsory under NCLB for schools and states that applied for federal Title I education funding. A sampling of those schools in each state must administer biennially the NAEP math and reading tests to students in grades 4 and 8.

Students Falling Short

RAND analysts examined data on state assessments and the NAEP, and then compared the two data sets to determine consistency.

Notably, the researchers found “fewer than half the students meet the proficiency standards, and in no state do even half the students meet the NAEP national literacy standard of proficiency.”

Pass rates on state assessments vary considerably. Passing percentages at the middle school level range from 21 to 94 percent. On high school assessments not linked to graduation, the pass rate range is 22 to 89 percent, according to McCombs.

“Differences among the states can be attributed to three factors, which we do not disentangle: difference in content tested on the assessment, differences in where proficiency rates are set, and differences in student ability,” McCombs explained.

McCombs and her colleagues also reported substantial achievement gaps between race/ethnicity and poverty status subgroups. For the fourth grade in reading, national and state assessments reveal, on average, a difference of:

  • 27 percentage points between the proficiency rates of white and African-American students;
  • 24 to 26 percentage points between white and Hispanic students; and
  • 23 to 25 percentage points between economically advantaged and economically disadvantaged students.

Mandating Standards Not Enough

In a speech on January 13 at a Virginia high school, President George W. Bush announced plans to ask Congress to expand NCLB by $1.5 billion for “high school intervention,” and for an additional $250 million allocated to high school testing.

“Simply mandating standards and assessments is not going to guarantee success,” the RAND researchers caution in their report.

“Our children are not finished learning to read in the primary grades,” McCombs stated. “They need continual instruction on reading strategies within content areas, and most of all, rich opportunities to read and write within content areas.”

Kate McGreevy ([email protected]) is a freelance education writer from Indiana. She formerly worked with the Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy in Washington, DC.

For more information …

The full text of RAND’s December report, “Meeting Literacy Goals Set by No Child Left Behind: A Long Uphill Road,” is available online at http://www.rand.org/pubs/technical_reports/2004/RAND_TR180.pdf.

A Research Brief summarizing the report is available online at http://www.rand.org/publications/RB/RB9081/RAND_RB9081.pdf.