Early Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

< Back to the Education Policy Program

Two-Thirds of 4th Graders Continue to Struggle in Reading

Published:  November 2, 2011

Once again we get a reminder of the poor state of American students’ abilities in reading and math: Only 34 percent of 4th grade students scored at or above “proficient” (i.e. grade level) and 33 percent of students didn’t even meet the mark for having “basic” reading skills, according to data released yesterday by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly known as “The Nation’s Report Card.”

In math, 40 percent of 4th graders are scoring in the proficient range. A smidgeon of good news comes in these math scores, which reflect a modest increase from 2009 and continue an overall trend set over the last decade. Students in 8th grade did slightly better as well. But these gains are significantly smaller than annual math gains made during the 1990’s which, though not huge, were more promising than the crawl we’re seeing in math today. Math scores for Black and Hispanic students were both slightly higher than the last time the test was administered in 2009, but the size of the gap between Black or Hispanic students and their white or Asian/Pacific islander students remains the same.

The reading scores among 4th and 8th Grade students remained unchanged from 2009, as they have in most other recent years. Some subsets of students appear to be making gains, however: scores among Black and Hispanic students, who perform less well than their white or Asian/Pacific Islander peers, have made modest but consistent improvements while white students’ scores have stagnated from 2003 to the present. During this time period, Black 4th graders’ scores increased by 7 points and Hispanic 4th graders’ scores increased by 6 points on a 500 point scale, while White students’ scores increased by only 2:

Click on graph to enlarge.

A similar but less pronounced pattern can be seen among 8th grade students:

Click on graph to enlarge.

These gains are better than nothing, but they beg the question: Why did the rate of improvement slow down? And why are reading scores still so low? As we’ve discussed here at Early Ed Watch, students who do not read at grade level by the end of 3rd grade have a harder time catching up with their peers in later grades and are significantly more likely to drop out of high school.

“The modest increases in NAEP scores are reason for concern as much as optimism,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement yesterday, pointing to the fact that the size of math and reading gains were larger the 1990’s. Duncan then plugged the administration’s proposed American Jobs Act, which would provide $30 billion to prevent teacher layoffs and $30 billion to “repair and modernize schools.”

Here at the Early Education Initiative, we believe that comprehensive efforts to reform early education up through the 3rd grade are essential to turning these trends around.

It's interesting to note, for example, that Washington, D.C. reflects a few bright spots: 4th grade scores in D.C. on reading and math, while still very low, have been climbing by multiple percentage points for the past few years. What is D.C. doing right? One hint comes from the mid-2000s, when D.C. greatly expanded its publicly funded pre-K program. The district is also the site of significant education reform efforts. Were the children who attended a pre-K program the same ones who did well on the NAEP this spring? Did those kids arrive in kindergarten with emerging literacy skills that gave them a better foundation for success? If so, have the city’s elementary schools adjusted their curricula and teaching methods to account for that? Could the emphasis on teacher effectiveness and the use of the IMPACT evaluation system throughout the K-12 system also account for the difference?  It will be important to hear from analysts within and outside District of Columbia Public Schools who can help answer these questions.

Join the Conversation

Please log in below through Disqus, Twitter or Facebook to participate in the conversation. Your email address, which is required for a Disqus account, will not be publicly displayed. If you sign in with Twitter or Facebook, you have the option of publishing your comments in those streams as well.