Reading First Paying Off, Education Dept. Says

By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 19, 2007

Students in the Bush administration's embattled $1 billion-a-year reading program have improved an average of about 15 percent on tests measuring fluency over the past five years, according to an analysis of data by the Education Department.

The Reading First program, a central part of the No Child Left Behind law, has been criticized by congressional Democrats who say it has been riddled with conflicts of interests and mismanagement. The House education committee is holding an oversight hearing on the matter Friday.

The data, scheduled to be released today, indicate that students have benefited from the program, which provides grants to improve reading in kindergarten through third grade.

"That's the irony," said John F. Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy. "The program was poorly -- even unethically -- administered at the federal level, yet it seems to be having a positive effect in schools."

A department official said the data show that the number of students in Reading First programs who were proficient on fluency tests increased on average over the past five years by 16 percent for first-graders, 14 percent for second-graders and 15 percent for third-graders. On comprehension tests, it increased 15 percent for first-graders, 6 percent for second-graders and 12 percent for third-graders. The official said the analysis is based on results from 16 states that have the most complete data.

"The results show that Reading First is an extremely effective program that is helping our nation's neediest students get the skills they need to read," said Amanda Farris, a deputy assistant education secretary who oversees the program.

Critics said the results were not so impressive, considering how much money has been spent on the program. They said the test scores are meaningless because they are not compared with the performance of other students, who nationwide are doing better in reading.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company