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; A01

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.

But the overall D.C. reading scores show an increase in fourth grade, to 202 last year from 197 in 2007. Nationally, the public average remained 220 on the 500-point scale. Virginia's score was unchanged at 227. Maryland's was 226 in 2009, compared with 225 in 2007, but the change was not statistically significant. Since 2002, though, Maryland has made major strides.

D.C. test scores have been trending upward, but achievement in the city's schools remains far below the high marks of the surrounding suburbs.

Rhee was appointed chancellor in 2007 by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to shake up a school system long regarded among the nation's worst. But some of the city's academic advances began under her predecessor, Superintendent Clifford B. Janey.

Rhee attributed some of the District's recent gains to aggressive screening to identify struggling readers, professional development for teachers and the creation of a two-hour "literacy block" in all elementary schools. That amounts to two hours every school day of uninterrupted focus on reading. In some cases, art, music and physical education teachers with free time go into classrooms to work with small groups of children. Rhee said the District's focus on written responses in preparation for the city's standardized tests helped develop higher-order comprehension skills.

"We're very heartened by this," Rhee said. "It's hard to discount the fact that D.C. has never seen gains like this before relative to other jurisdictions."

Rhee has expressed hope that academic improvement will translate to increased enrollment for the school system, ending a long period of free-fall in the student population. On Wednesday, officials announced that there are 44,467 students this year in the school system, a marginal decline of 214 from the previous year. There are 27,617 students in the fast-growing charter schools, up about 8 percent.

The federal report showed that fourth- and eighth-grade scores nationally were well short of levels the government deems proficient. The national averages remain mired in the basic range, meaning that students showed only partial mastery of the knowledge and skills fundamental to reaching proficiency in each grade.

The tests were given early last year to 178,800 fourth-graders and 160,900 eighth-graders. The 2009 version included poetry in the fourth grade for the first time, among other adjustments, but officials said the scores were comparable.

Kentucky officials said they were thrilled with their results, which show a four-point gain in fourth grade over two years and a five-point gain in eighth grade. No other state could show definitive gains in both grades. But Kentucky appears to have no especially unusual program for reading.

"It's our teachers," said state Department of Education spokeswoman Lisa Gross. "They are so determined to make sure that every kid has the kind of reading skills kids need at a particular grade level. They have put a laser-like focus on reading."

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