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National reading scores stagnant

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Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 2010; 12:00 PM

A new federal report shows the nation's students are mired at a basic level of reading in fourth and eighth grades, their achievement in recent years largely stagnant, a result that suggests a dwindling academic payoff from the landmark No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.

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Post education reporter Nick Anderson was online Wednesday, March 24 at Noon ET to discuss the report, its implications for NCLB and President Obama's proposed changes to the law.

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Nick Anderson: Hello. Nick Anderson here, national education correspondent for the Post. Let's talk about test scores and school reform. We have today the latest readout on reading from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, better known as the "nation's report card" and known to wonks as NAEP. Our first take on this is that reading scores are largely stagnant--no gain over two years in fourth grade, a one-point gain (out of 500) in eighth grade. What's your take?

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College Park, Md.: Reading scores aren't growing and U.S. math scores are only slightly improving in international testing. Worse yet U.S. science scores haven't grown since well before NCLB according to the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS). If Congress continues the pattern of only testing reading and math (something that isn't actually helping anyone), won't other subjects fare even worse?

Nick Anderson: Excellent question. There is a lot of talk in Congress and the Obama administration about how to address what experts call "curriculum narrowing." No Child Left Behind put high stakes on reading and math tests. Schools were also required to test in science (not something that is well known) but the science tests don't count for computing school ratings under the law. It's understandable, in some ways, that the law would focus on reading and math because those are core skills that affect almost everything else a student learns. If you don't know how to read, the argument goes, you'll flounder in history, science, arts and even math. Ditto for math as it relates to science. But studies show that schools have diminished time on other subjects to make room for math and reading lessons.

The administration hopes to change that. Its proposal for a rewrite of No Child Left Behind would allow states to count test scores in subjects other than reading and math when they rate schools. We'll see if Congress goes along.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: There have been a few teachers who complained that student education was diminished as classes were recentered towards doing well on the tests more than encouraging learning. Have you heard similar complaints? If so, it thus is doubly sad that some learning may have been lost with no reward for higher scores.

Nick Anderson: This is, I think, a variation on the complaint that schools "teach to the test." We hear this one all the time. For what it's worth, my impression is that teachers have been "teaching to the test" for a long time and that isn't necesssarily a bad thing. The issue is, how good is the test and what is the purpose of the test?

Standardized tests, especially multiple-choice tests, are considered useful for a lot of reasons. When designed well and used well, they can give a reliable regional/state/or national snapshot of student performance.

But many educators say standardized tests have been abused in the No Child Left Behind era and that schools have "dumbed down" their curriculum to goose their scores. There is some debate on that point. But there is no debate that testing is on the verge of change. Many states are pushing for new academic standards, and their will be a new generation of tests to measure progress against those standards. We'll see how that affects teaching and learning.

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Arlington, Va.: The United States has a ridiculously long 10 week summer break. Honestly, it really is no surprise that scores have stagnated. Schools have done what they can with the time they have -- real progress will require more funds and commitment to learning, i.e. a longer school year. But there is no political will for it.

Nick Anderson: Time is money.

Schools are short of money. Way short.

There is a lot of support for "extended learning time" among school reformers. This could mean after school, before school, weekends and even a longer school year.

I bet extended learning time remains a wish-list item rather than an action item in the next few years in most places because the economic recession is forcing cutbacks in school systems around the country. Basically, they have to fund teacher salaries first. And remember that Obama's stimulus money, which saved schools from thousands of layoffs in this academic year, is not going to last much longer.

But your point about summer is well taken. Poor kids, especially, lose ground in the summer. Rich kids get lots of enrichment, camp, and educational activities. Summer breaks widen the gap, no doubt.

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D.C.: This is (obviously) a comment, not a question. Perhaps these latest findings suggest that the problem with educational achievement in America starts somewhere other than the schools. Perhaps we should take a long hard look at other social factors, like 2 (or more) income families, the demise of the blue collar middle class, rising economic inequality, and cultural disinterest in achievement.

Nick Anderson: Your observation is shared by many. The evidence that kids from affluent families do better academically than kids from poor families is overwhelming.

Here's the thing--Can struggling schools be fixed even when social factors stack the odds against large numbers of kids? The answer in many places is yes. So a large faction of educators says let there be no excuses for failure--not poverty, not language barriers, not disability, not inequality. Another large faction (and there is plenty overlap) says, no excuses but help us outside the schools too. Make sure kids arrive here every day ready to learn and we'll do the rest.

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Fairfax, Va.: Since NCLB was passed, I have noticed a profound lack of time and effort spent on GT kids. The biggest change has been to abandon any acceleration of these students, by subject or grade skipping, because their test scores would then not count for their chronological peer grade groups. Will this abhorrent practice change under the proposed changes to NCLB under this administration?

Nick Anderson: No question, the gifted and talented children weren't a focus of the No Child law. The law sought to set minimum standards for what kids should know--on the theory that that's how you close achievement gaps. Note, though, that states typically count how many kids score at "advanced" levels on those reading and math tests.

But I bet there's a lot more discussion about GT education in the rewrite of NCLB. The administration wants to raise standards--aim higher to help the country compete globally. Inevitably, that emphasis will ripple through GT education. That also will mean more students will fall short on tests and there will have to be a huge push to help them.

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Bridgewater, Mass.: The last time these test results were reported, Massachusetts educators attributed their better scores to not focusing on the mechanics of reading but to emphasizing real-world information.

My own experience in learning to read other languages suggests they have something there. When I was learning to read Czech in Prague, I noticed that even when I knew all the words and grammar in an article, I sometimes couldn't "read" it until I figured out what it was about, when all those potential multiple meanings were reduced to a single unambiguous one. (Or I realized the author was trying to be funny.)

How has the "sustained silent reading" approach worked out? At one time it seemed to offer real hope, but maybe it too only helps with mastering the mechanics of reading?

Nick Anderson: I'm not a reading expert, though I love to read.

Experts tell me that the big push in reading education is to make sure that students learn the mechanics early; that they have wide knowledge of subjects like science and social studies to help them grasp what they read; and that they read steadily more complex texts as they grow.

This is the aim of the common core standards proposed this year by governors, and it seems to have a lot of momentum. It also seems to echo your own experience.

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Nick Anderson: Here's another observation from the NAEP reading release: racial and ethnic achievement gaps have not narrowed since 2007. Why not?

That's a big deal.

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Cumberland, Md.: Our public education system is a failure. I think that it has drifted away from Education into trying to deal with social problems. I think schools need to get back to basic education and not wear about school lunch, ESL, psychological counseling and all the other nonsense which infects our schools .

Nick Anderson: I'm not one who believes that the system as a whole is a failure. There are lots of bright spots in American education and lots of challenges. And there is, no doubt, plenty of failure.

Lunches are pretty important to education. If kids are hungry--and millions come to school every day without a square meal from home--they won't learn as well as they might. English as a second language instruction is essential to many immigrants and children of immigrants. And I wouldn't call psychological counseling nonsense.

But if your point is, let's renew our focus on teaching, you have a lot of company.

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Nick Anderson: Thanks to all who are following our education coverage. Please check out our web site for education news--www.washingtonpost.com/education. We also just launched washingtonpost.com/higher-ed for the latest on colleges and universities. Keep reading!

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