Press Release

WASHINGTON (March 24, 2010) – Since 2007, all student groups and the nation as a whole made modest gains in reading at the eighth-grade level on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Some other results are troubling, however:

  • Performance among America’s fourth-graders—where the strongest and most consistent growth has occurred over the past decade—appears to have flattened.
  • Achievement gaps did not narrow at either the fourth-grade or eighth-grade level.
  • Only one state—Kentucky—improved its overall scores in both grades.
  • Fourth-grade scores in four states—Alaska, Iowa, New Mexico, and Wyoming—actually declined.

Given these trends—which are nearly identical to those from the 2009 NAEP mathematics assessment—it is more important than ever for educators and policymakers to identify and scale up the strategies that powerfully improve student learning.

“We should celebrate the improvements our eighth-graders made, but our seemingly stalled progress at the elementary level is discouraging,” said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust. “Our country cannot afford to fall into an academic recession while we’re trying to climb out of an economic one.”

Strong reading skills equip us with the tools we need to succeed in the workplace and in life. According to the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, adults with stronger literacy skills are more likely to be employed, have higher status jobs, and earn significantly more income. They also are more likely to vote, read to their children and help them with homework, and volunteer in their communities.

And while we have placed much-needed attention on boosting math and science achievement, reading is critical for all workers in today’s digitally driven workplace. In a 2006 national survey, employers ranked reading comprehension ahead of technology abilities in a list of the skills that high school and two-year/technical college graduates should possess. In fact, there is evidence that as workplaces become more computerized and sophisticated, traditional blue-collar workers such as auto mechanics can no longer function successfully without strong reading abilities.

“While policymakers across the nation scramble to get Americans back to work, we must remember that our economic health depends not just on creating more good jobs but also on ensuring that Americans are prepared to fill them,” said Haycock. “President Obama has set his sights on the right goal: regaining our status as the best educated people on earth. But we’ll never get there without dramatically and immediately boosting the achievement of all students and closing once and for all the achievement gaps that separate students and drag down our economy.”

After a decade of steady progress, fourth-grade reading achievement seems to be stagnating nationwide, and gaps between student groups have not narrowed since 2007. Fewer than one-third (32 percent) of our nation’s fourth-graders performed at the Proficient level or above on the NAEP exam. Among low-income students, the proficiency rate is 17 percent. For Latino (16 percent) and African-American (15 percent) students, the results are equally disturbing.

At the state level, some are doing better—sometimes far better—while others remain shamefully and stubbornly behind.

  • Florida’s fourth-graders are among the nation’s most consistent gainers. Since 2003, proficiency rates among African-American (up five percentage points), Latino (up seven percentage points), and low-income students (up seven percentage points) have far outpaced the national average rate of improvement for each group.
  • Connecticut’s black-white achievement gap has been consistently among America’s largest. Although this rate isn’t narrowing nearly fast enough, the state’s black students have made strong gains. Since 2003, reading proficiency among Connecticut’s black fourth-graders has grown from 12 percent in 2003 to 22 percent in 2009.

In three states—Louisiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin—fewer than one in ten (9 percent) of each state’s African-American fourth-graders are proficient in reading.

  • Among eighth-graders, national averages increased for all student groups since 2007, but the gaps failed to narrow. State-level results also are mixed, but some states made important strides.
  • Nine states improved their overall scores from 2007 to 2009. Among those, Florida also narrowed its gaps between African-American and white students and between low-income and more affluent students.
  • Since 2007, Delaware narrowed the black-white gap by five percentage points, Georgia narrowed the Latino-white gap by seven percentage points, and both Iowa and Alaska narrowed the gap between low-income and more affluent students by four percentage points each.

“Progress is coming neither fast enough nor vast enough. But our most improved states show that when we concentrate on ratcheting up instruction and expectations for all students, we effect real change,” said Amy Wilkins, vice president of The Education Trust. “After a decade of strong growth nationally, we now look like we’re slow-playing the hand we’ve been dealt. To truly get our country back on track, America’s schools need to start going ‘all in’ for all of their students.”

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