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Last week, the results of a national reading test confirmed what many people in the education world have known for years-there is a silent literacy crisis in American middle and high schools. Scores indicated that while American fourth-graders have improved their reading achievement significantly over the last two years, performance by eighth-graders remained flat while 12th-graders’ scores declined.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report, The Nation’s Report Card: Reading 2002, released last week by the National Center for Education Statistics provides disturbing evidence of a major cause of this crisis: Far too many of America’s middle and high school students are reading at levels far below grade level. There is some good news in the report-the reading achievement of American fourth-graders has improved significantly since the last tests were administered in 1998.

Meanwhile, the Alliance has identified 6 million students in grades six through 12 who scored below basic on the most recent administration of the NAEP test. Students with such low reading scores are at a greater risk of dropping out of school.

States with the largest number of students scoring below basic on the NAEP Reading Test

State Percentage of Students at Risk Number of At-Risk Students in Grades 6-12
Washington, D.C.
New Mexico
South Carolina

Source: Calculations by the Alliance for Excellent Education, based on the percentage of students reading below basic levels on the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and 2001-2002 enrollment data from NCES’s Common Core of Data.

The improvement in fourth-grade reading scores demonstrates that the nation’s investment in literacy programs for early grades is clearly paying off. However, few middle or high schools have a comprehensive approach to teaching literacy across the curriculum. Reading First, established as part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, is providing approximately $1 billion a year in federal funding to establish reading instruction programs for children in kindergarten through third grade, but which will not help middle or high school students.

In Every Child a Graduate, the Alliance made the case that now is the time to extend our national commitment to raising the literacy levels of America’s children beyond the early grades, to benefit students in grades six through 12. Research shows, that those who receive intensive, focused literacy instruction and tutoring graduate from high school and attend college in significantly greater numbers than those not receiving such attention.

In order to reach these adolescents in middle and high school who struggle to read at their grade level, Congress and the administration could work to strengthen and expand the Reading First program by adding an Adolescent Literacy Initiative to its mission. The initiative could help place a literacy specialist in every high needs school who will train teachers across subject areas to improve the reading and writing skills of all students. The literacy specialist would also help teachers to learn to identify reading difficulties, and ensure that secondary school students receive the extra help and support services they need to become effective readers and writers.

Complete results of the Nation’s Report Card: Reading 2002 are available at:

To learn more about the Alliance for Excellent Education’s adolescent literacy initiative, visit:

U.S. Conference of Mayors Supports Adolescent Reading Program

Earlier this month, more than 200 mayors from around the United States and the rest of the world threw their support behind an education platform that included calling on Congress to pass and fund legislation that establishes an adolescent reading program.

According to the resolution, the program would be “similar to Reading First, but focused on middle and high school students to ensure that they have the skills to complete high school, attend college, and be a part of America’s 21st century workforce.” The resolution further encouraged federal, state, and local governments to “address the academic and social needs of the six million children at risk of dropping out of high school.” The mayors’ platform also called on Congress to fully fund the No Child Left Behind Act, provide support for an expansion of GEAR UP, TRIO and other community-based college access programs, and increase investment in after-school programs.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors is the official nonpartisan organization of the nation’s 1,183 U.S. cities with populations of 30,000 or more.

Learn more about the U.S. Conference of Mayors and its annual conference at:


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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.