Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

America's Students Get Better at Reading

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

America's Students Get Better at Reading

Article excerpt

The United States, in the throes of one of the biggest education- reform drives in history, is seeing progress in at least one key area - reading.

Across the board, reading scores are up for the three grades tested (4, 8, and 12) compared with scores four years earlier. Moreover, improvement is evident for nearly all students - boys, girls, whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians (except for the fourth grade) - and for public schools, private schools, and schools in each region of the country.

But the reading "report card" by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) - widely considered the most important test in the US - also holds a sobering message in the 1998 scores. Despite gains, 3 in 5 high school seniors don't read well enough to handle challenging subject matter, and the same ratio of black and Hispanic fourth-graders can't read well enough to know what is going on in class. Reading scores have been the immovable rock in efforts to improve American education. While math scores have steadily increased since 1980, reading scores have been stagnant or even declined, despite major reading initiatives. Without sustained improvement in the most basic skill of all, national reform efforts will founder, many educators say. "Today's NAEP report shows that there is significant movement in the right direction," says Mark Musick, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), which administers the national tests. "Unfortunately, there still are not nearly enough students who are reading well enough to handle a challenging curriculum or meet the nation's needs {in} the 21st century." But even mixed NAEP results have been a powerful boost to reform efforts nationwide. The drop in 1994 reading scores prompted a whole- scale reassessment of reading instruction in the nation - away from a method called "whole language" instruction and back toward fundamental spelling and phonics. Even if this year's improvement can be tied to the reemergence of phonics, however, educators say it will take awhile for the emphasis on basic reading skills to reach the classroom. "Phonics hasn't really made it back into the classroom yet," says Sandra Stotsky, a researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "You've still got people in higher education who are digging their heels in and not giving teachers the in-service training they need to teach basic skills." States and school boards adopted whole language instruction in the 1980s - an approach that favored exposure to interesting literature and soft-pedaled the basics. While this worked for average students, it proved detrimental to children from poorer backgrounds, who came to the classroom with little exposure to reading. Subsequent poor test results sparked a backlash. Nowhere was that alarm sounded more emphatically than in California, which adopted whole language in 1987. …

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