Reading scores stalled under 'No Child' law, report finds D.C. fourth-graders a bright spot in disappointing 2009 data

By Nick Anderson and Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 25, 2010

Reading achievement in D.C. public schools has climbed in the fourth grade in recent years, the federal government reported Wednesday, while progress nationwide has stalled despite huge instructional efforts launched under the No Child Left Behind law.

A report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that fourth-grade scores for the nation's public schools stagnated after the law took effect in 2002, rose modestly in 2007 and remained unchanged last year. By contrast, the long-troubled D.C. schools have made steady advances since 2003, although their scores remain far below the national average.

The national picture for eighth-grade reading was largely the same: a slight uptick in performance since 2007, but no gain in the seven years when President George W. Bush's program for school reform was in high gear. The District's eighth-grade reading scores showed meager growth in that time.

When Bush signed the law, hopes were high for a revolution in reading. Billions of dollars were spent, especially in early grades, to build fluency, vocabulary, comprehension and a love of books that would propel students in all subjects. The goal was to eliminate racial and ethnic achievement gaps. But Wednesday's report shows no great leaps for the nation and stubborn disparities in performance between white and black students, among others.

"We've had a real focus on reading, and we're stuck," said Susan Pimentel, a reading expert and member of the board that oversees the federal tests. The report, she said, "points to an issue, and we've got to, as practitioners, figure out what's going on. I think students aren't reading enough. And I think they aren't reading enough of the good stuff. That's true in grade four, and that's true in grade eight, on up."

Other experts said they took heart from some long-term advances among the lowest-achieving students.

Federal tests sample student achievement periodically across the country to determine trends but are separate from annual state tests the No Child law requires to rate schools. The state tests are required every year in grades three through eight and once in high school.

Last fall, the government reported sluggish gains in math in a companion series of federal tests. Taken together, the reading and math results are likely to be seized on by would-be reformers as evidence that a new approach should be taken. What that should be remains an open question.

"The reading scores demonstrate that students aren't making the progress necessary to compete in the global economy," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. "We shouldn't be satisfied with these results. By this and many other measures, our students aren't on a path to graduate high school ready to succeed in college and the workplace."

Only in Kentucky did reading scores rise significantly in both grades from 2007 to 2009.

President Obama wants to raise standards and give educators more freedom to innovate without abolishing the premise of No Child Left Behind that students should be tested every year and schools held accountable for failure. Teachers unions, critical of Obama's plan, say educators should be given far more funding and other help to lift the performance of struggling students. Talks are underway in Congress on a rewrite of the law.

In reading, as in math, the D.C. public schools were a bright spot in 2009. The reading report does not give separate results for public charter schools or for the D.C. school system under Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. That breakdown will come in the next several weeks in an analysis of urban education trends.

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