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The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)

Sebastian Wren, Ph.D.

Since 1971, the National Center for Education Statistics has been tracking assessment data in the areas of Math, Science, and Reading -- this assessment is called the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), and it has come to be known as the "Nation's Report Card."

In reading, scores have been tracked from a nationwide sample of 9, 13, and 17 year olds since 1971.  A summary of the reading scores for the NAEP is presented below:

From the National Center for Education Statistics

Scores on the NAEP have not changed dramatically in over 30 years.  As the great debate has raged, we have moved through periods of Phonics instruction and Whole Language instruction, and even periods of Balanced Reading instruction.  Still the scores have remained stable.

What's worse, the reading scores are not good.  Consider this summary of the 1998 NAEP scores:

Percent Below Basic
Percent Basic
Percent Proficient
Percent Advanced
Age 9 (grade 4)
Age 13 (grade 8)
Age 17 (grade 12)

What this summary table says is that most students have only rudimentary reading skills, while only a very few students have proficient or advanced reading skills.

And it has been that way for as long as we have been testing reading skills.

The moral of this story is that the "Great Debate" (or what some have described as the "Reading Wars") is really a pointless debate.  With the focus on instructional techniques, we have lost sight of student learning.  We are concerned more with what the teacher does than what the student needs to learn.  If we are to be truly successful at teaching all children to read (and there is no reason why we shouldn't be), we must shift our attention away from the pointless polemics of the Great Debate, and focus instead upon student learning needs.

Only when we shift our focus to the individual learning needs of individual students will we be able to teach all children to read.  Research has shown that there are basic knowledge domains that must be well developed in all early readers if they are to be successful.  No matter what instructional approach the teacher uses, all children must learn and master the same knowledge domains.  What all teachers must understand, then, is what these knowledge domains are, and how they can assess them and teach them as effectively as possible.

Fortunately, this is an area where research can offer a great deal of information.

The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, for example, has summarized the most important findings of the past 30 years of reading research and presented it in a readable document that teachers have found to be quite helpful in understanding what the essential areas related to successful reading acquisition are, and how they relate to each other.  Beginning with an understanding of the "framework" presented in that document will help teachers understand and make use of such valuable resources as "Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print" by Marilyn Jager Adams, "Classrooms that Work" by Dick Allington and Pat Cunningham, and Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children by the National Research Council.  Go to http://www.sedl.org/reading/framework and browse around the on-line, interactive version of the framework.  You can also download a PDF version to read and share with other people.

We have also begun to collect information that can help teachers to be more effective in their instruction as well (see "I is for Instruction").  And we have collected a good deal of information and resources related to diagnostic reading assessment (see "A is for Assessment")

If we do not dramatically change the way we think about reading instruction, and break out of the repetitive cycle of the Great Debate, then children are doomed to the mediocre reading achievement levels we have seen for the past 30 years.  And that is totally unacceptable (see "C is for Consequences for Reading Failure").

ADDENDUM:  October 23, 2005
Disappointing NAEP Scores -- What are We Doing Wrong?

The Nation's Report Card for Reading came out on Wednesday, and the news is not good.  Since 1969, every few years, a very large, representative sample of students has been tested on a variety of basic knowledge and skills -- reading among them.  Because of its consistency in content and implementation, this assessment, called the National Assessment of Education Progress (or NAEP) is one of the best indicators of education trends in our country.  NAEP reading data has been consistently gathered from 4th, 8th and 12th graders, thus making trends over time easy to monitor.  No other reading assessment in the country gives a more accurate picture of long-term trends in reading education.

Since 1969, debates have raged about reading education.  Schools have restructured and changed their approaches to teaching reading, reading programs have fallen into and out of favor, philosophical views about how best to teach reading skills have come into and out of vogue, reading education laws have been passed, and funding sources for reading education initiatives have changed.  As the saying goes, the only thing you can count on in education is change.

One would think that with all of this change and turmoil going on, SOMETHING would have had some impact on our nation's reading scores.  What is strikingly remarkable about the NAEP reading scores, however, is that they really have not changed at all in over 35 years.  With all of the fuss and turmoil that has been characterizing education and reading instruction in this country for the past 35 years, it is simply amazing that absolutely none of it has had any impact on NAEP reading scores.  Zero.  None.  Zip.  Nada.  Bupkis.

In the 1971 NAEP Reading assessment, the average scale score for 12th graders was 285 -- this year, it was 285.  For 8th graders, the average score rose from 255 to 259 -- 4 points over the course of 35 years.  4th graders have made the greatest gains, from 208 in 1971 to 219 this year.  That's 11 points in 35 years.

The most recent NAEP reading scores were considered by many to be a test of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which was authorized in 2001.  It was expected that with new, stricter accountability standards, and a clear focus on reading skills, student achievement would be substantially improved, and that improved achievement would be reflected in gains in NAEP reading scores.  Over a billion dollars has been spent on Reading First, which was to improve reading instruction in grades K-3, and a clear emphasis was placed on using reading programs in all grades that have been proven effective through "scientific research."

As the most recent NAEP reading scores have remained stubbornly fixed where they have been for over 35 years, many critics of NCLB are exercising their constitutionally guaranteed right to say "I told you so."  With no real change in NAEP reading scores, the NCLB does indeed seem to be a frustrating and expensive failure.  The promise of NCLB was to dramatically improve reading education, and the absence of gains in student achievement on the reading portion of the NAEP tells us that NCLB is probably not going to live up to its promise.  Critics of NCLB are taking this opportunity to call for dismantling and scrapping NCLB.

This is disappointing for me because there are many parts of NCLB that I think are important and necessary components for school improvement.

I think that school accountability is a good idea, although as I have reported earlier, I think our current accountability system could be much improved (see below for a previous essay on the subject -- May 2, 2005 -- Sebastian's Formula for a Better School Accountability System).

I believe that relying on high-quality reading research to guide instruction is a good idea, although the way the term "research based" is currently being applied to reading programs is simple-minded and meaningless.

I also am generally opposed to leaving children behind.

So I do not think we should view the torpid NAEP reading scores as a complete indictment of all of NCLB, but instead we should realize that a few critical components of school improvement were sorely lacking from NCLB.  In fact, if you want my opinion, I think it is fairly obvious that MOST of the reform efforts and debate about reading and literacy for the past 35 years has been fairly irrelevant and trivial.  We have argued and fought about improving reading programs, and changing standards, and imposing accountability, and legislating fairly uninformed philosophical views about reading instruction for much more than 35 years -- none of it has had any impact on student achievement, good or bad.  All of this debate has simply been irrelevant.

When in doubt, I trust research, and research evidence has clearly and repeatedly shown that the quality of literacy education depends primarily upon the knowledge and skills of the classroom teacher.  Teacher quality is the single, most important variable in literacy education, yet we pay very little attention to it in public debate and legislation.  NCLB does indeed call for "highly qualified teachers," but the standards expressed in NCLB for teacher quality are not relevant to literacy instruction.  The NCLB expectations for "highly qualified teachers" focus on middle- and high-school teachers teaching subjects in which they have an adequate education themselves.  Thus, a high-school math teacher should have a degree in mathematics, a science teacher should have a degree in science.  But what about the elementary reading teacher?  No mention is made of teacher quality at that level.  No initiatives within NCLB exist to significantly enhance the knowledge and skills of early reading teachers.

I have repeatedly argued that learning to read is by far the single, most important skill a person can learn.  I have also repeatedly argued that reading teachers should be the best-trained, most knowledgeable experts on that subject.  If you have a question about a medical issue, you go to a doctor for expertise.  If you have a question about a legal issue, you go to a lawyer.  If you have a question about a literacy issue, you SHOULD be able to go to a reading teacher for expertise.

If we want to see substantial improvements in the NAEP reading and writing scores, then we must do much more than merely invest in "research based" reading programs.  Most of the reading programs out there are already pretty good, and further investments in reading programs will have trivial returns.  If we want to see real improvements in reading achievement, we absolutely must invest substantially in the quality of reading teachers.  Improving reading programs and instructional materials should consume 20% of our efforts -- improving the knowledge and skills of reading teachers should consume 80%.  Right now, if anything, those numbers are reversed.  I believe we have our priorities exactly backwards.

To earn a college degree in elementary education, at least 15 hours of coursework in reading research, instruction, and assessment should be required of every student.

A Master's degree should be required for certification as a reading specialist, and that certification should require renewal every 5 years.

A novice reading teacher should serve for at least one year as an apprentice with a mentor providing guidance and support.

And our approaches to teacher professional development need to be seriously overhauled.  More time and resources should be invested in professional development, and professional development should be 10% workshops, and 90% job-embedded modeling, coaching, and mentoring.  Workshops serve a purpose, so they shouldn't be outlawed all together, but workshops do very little to change practice.  Job-embedded coaching and modeling and support are much more effective for improving instruction.

And, of course, substantial increases in pay should accompany these changes in professional standards.  With professional expectations come professional salaries.

When children can read and write well, the rest of education follows relatively easily, so investing in reading instruction will pay off down the road.  Better reading programs are only a small part of improving reading instruction -- improving the knowledge and talent of reading teachers is the solution we should be investing in.  Had NCLB made teacher quality for reading and literacy teachers more of a priority, I believe we would be seeing the the first increase in NAEP reading scores in over 35 years.  Instead, what we have is just more of the same.

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Last Updated 8-7-03