National Reading Scores Show Some Improvement

National Reading Scores Show Some Improvement
April 1, 1999

George A. Clowes

George Clowes is a Heartland senior fellow addressing education policy. He served as founding... (read full bio)



While Vice President Al Gore praised what he characterized as the "great progress" made by American students in national reading tests, a Department of Education official offered a much more sober assessment of recent test results, saying only that there had been "some improvement."

When Gore used the test results to promote the Clinton Administration's education agenda, a Republican member of Congress pointedly noted that federal literacy programs had produced only "mediocrity."

The test results show small gains in reading proficiency between 4th and 12th grades. "The 1998 results show some improvement in reading achievement nationally, particularly at Grade 8 and since 1994," said Pascal D. Forgione Jr., commissioner of education statistics at the National Center for Education Statistics, which released results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress on February 10. However, Forgione cautioned, "the increases between 1994 and 1998 for students in Grades 4 and 12 showed no net gain over the 1992 average scores."

The 1998 Reading Report Card for the Nation is part of an ongoing survey of trends in academic achievement that started in the 1970s. Known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), it is the only continuing, nationally representative assessment of academic performance in the nation's K-12 schools. The 1998 reading assessment is the third since the framework was updated by the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) in 1992. During the 1970s and 1980s, reading scores changed little from test to test.

The report highlights what students in 4th, 8th, and 12th grades know and can do in reading. State-level results were made available in March for those that participate in the NAEP tests.

With the NAEP scale ranging from 0-500, students performed as follows on the 1998 tests:

  • Fourth-graders increased their average reading score from 214 in 1994 to 217 in 1998, bringing it back up to the 1992 level.
  • Eighth-graders increased their average reading score from 260 in 1994 to 264 in 1998, raising it above the 1992 score of 260.
  • Twelfth-graders increased their average reading score from 287 in 1994 to 291 in 1998, still short of the 1992 level of 292.

At all three grades in 1998, female students outperformed male students, white students outperformed black and Hispanic students, and students in nonpublic schools outperformed their counterparts in public schools. On average, low-income, inner-city, and minority students scored lower than other children.

Student reading performance also is assessed according to what students should know and be able to do. That is defined according to three levels of proficiency established by the NAGB: Basic, Proficient, and Advanced, with the Proficient level identified as the standard all students should reach. Proficient means that a student can understand a text and draw inferences from it.

In its assessment of reading proficiency, the Report Card is a stunning indictment of the nation's public schools, which fail to teach even half of their students to become proficient readers. Only 40 percent of 12th-grade students read at or above the Proficient level, and almost a quarter (23 percent) read below the Basic Level. Only 6 percent read at an Advanced level.

As Education Secretary Richard Riley pointed out when the Report Card was released, this reading failure does not occur in high school but much earlier. While he urged parents to get involved, prodded schools to strengthen their reading instruction programs, and encouraged community members to become reading tutors, he offered a grim prophesy of what happens when schools fail to teach children to read in the early grades.

"When we don't teach our children to read well by the end of the third grade, they are often condemned to fall behind," said Riley.

According to the 1998 Report Card, only 31 percent of 4th-grade students read at or above the Proficient level, and 38 percent read below the Basic level. Only 7 percent read at the Advanced level. The gain in proficiency from 4th grade to 12th grade is only 9 percentage points: the 69 percent of students who are not Proficient in 4th grade will drop only to 60 percent by the time these students become seniors in high school. Some educators have pointed out that even this "progress" is suspect since, by the 12th grade, some of the lower-performing students have dropped out.

Despite the fact that this gain of 9 percentage points between 4th and 12th grades is smaller than the 11 point gain achieved in 1992, Secretary Riley argued that the results showed that President Clinton's reading initiatives were working. Gore echoed Riley's view and urged Congress to approve the administration's education agenda of smaller classes, more tutors, and more assistance for poor readers.

Representative Bill Goodling, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, disagreed, saying the results showed that federal literacy and remediation programs were not working.


For more information ...

More information on the National Center for Education Statistics’ 1998 Reading Report Card is available at its Web site, www.nces.ed.gov. The entire 230-page report is available there for downloading as an Adobe Acbrobat PDF file. The six-page executive summary is available through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to http://www.heartland.org and click on the PolicyBot icon. Search for old document #2168301.

George A. Clowes

George Clowes is a Heartland senior fellow addressing education policy. He served as founding... (read full bio)