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NATION’S REPORT CARD SHOWS NEED FOR IMPROVEMENT: Eighth-Grade Reading Scores Continue to Decline

"We hope Congress funds that program, to make sure that there's intense focus in the middle schools reading and math, just like there's intense focus in the early grades in reading and math."

Reading scores for eighth-grade students continue to decline as scores for the nation’s fourth-grade students rose slightly, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results that were released on October 19. The assessment-also called the “Nation’s Report Card”-showed that, nationwide, the average score for fourth-grade students (219 on a 500-point scale) increased by one point from 2003, while the average eighth-grade score (262) was one point lower than in 2003 and two points lower than in 2002.

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings greeted the report as further evidence that No Child Left Behind is working. “These results, like the long-term July data, confirm that we are on the right track with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), particularly with younger students who have benefited from the core principles of annual assessment and disaggregation of data,” she said. “The results in fourth grade are particularly encouraging, and we are truly heartened by the continued narrowing of the achievement gap.”

Other observers were not as happy with the results. “The absence of really bad news isn’t the same as good news, and if you’re concerned about education and closing achievement gaps, there’s simply not enough good news in these national results,” said Ross Weiner, policy director of the Education Trust. “There’s been a discernible slowdown in progress since ’03, at a time when we desperately need to accelerate gains.”

New York Times editorial on October 22 questioned whether NCLB had run its course and if additional gains could be expected in the future. “No Child Left Behind has reached that perilous interim phase that all reforms must eventually pass through if they are to survive,” it read. “It has reaped the easy gains that were achieved by merely paying more attention to the problem . . . This week’s test scores are not the end of reform. But they could well spell the beginning of a downward spiral.”

According to the results, 29 percent of American eighth graders in public schools read “below basic,” indicating that they have no literal understanding of what they read and putting them at great risk of dropping out of high school. Research shows that students who enter ninth grade reading significantly below grade level are twenty times more likely to drop out of high school than are their highest achieving classmates.

Among minority groups, there was some improvement. Asian, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaskan Native eighth-grade students improved their average score over the last two years, while average scores for white and African-American eighth-grade students declined by one point. However, a large achievement gap of 22-28 percent continues to exist between white and Asian eighth-grade students and the rest of their classmates, although it has narrowed slightly since 2003.

The results also showed a 23 percent achievement gap between students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and those who are not. In an analysis of the 2003 NAEP scores, Standard & Poor’s found that poverty is the demographic indicator most closely correlated with student performance. In fact, when each state’s results on the 2003 NAEP were adjusted for their respective levels of student poverty-in effect leveling the playing field between states with large populations of economically disadvantaged students and those with a relatively smaller percentage of those pupils-most states performed similarly.

Bush, Spellings Use Stagnant Eighth-Grade NAEP Scores to Promote High School Agenda

In a meeting with Spellings to discuss the report card, President George W. Bush highlighted the narrowing of the achievement gap in fourth-grade reading and math, but used the opportunity to push for funding that would improve the literacy skills of older students. “We’ve got work to do in eighth-grade reading. And that’s why we’ve discussed the Striving Readers program,” he said. “We hope Congress funds that program, to make sure that there’s intense focus in the middle schools reading and math, just like there’s intense focus in the early grades in reading and math.”

Alliance for Excellent Education President Bob Wise agreed. “Reading is the heart of learning, and the nation is in the literacy emergency room, showing a flat line on the education EKG,” he said. “The results, nationally and for each state, clearly demonstrate that we still are not doing what is needed to help our older students build the reading skills they will need to deal with increasingly complex high school courses. The investments made in early grades to teach our kids to read are critical, but we must continue to intervene throughout their school years to assure that they are maintaining and expanding the literacy skills that are so necessary for success in life.”

In an October 20 op-ed in USA Today, Secretary Spellings used the Nation’s Report Card results to advocate for the president’s proposal to expand No Child Left Behind into high schools. Noting the higher scores in fourth-grade math and reading and eight-grade math, Spellings said that scores for high school students have “barely budged” and “needed a boost.” “President Bush’s High School Initiative would enable high schools to measure student performance in three grades and offer intensive, early instruction to students struggling with reading or math.”

NAEP 2005 results
Secretary Spellings’s op-ed, “Tests Will Drive Gains,”:
“Happy Talk on School Reform”:
Standard & Poor’s 2003 NAEP analysis: It will soon be updated based on the 2005 NAEP results.

For a state-by-state breakdown on the 2005 NAEP results, visit the Alliance for Excellent Education’s website at and click on the name of your state.


Higher State Scores Fail to Translate into Higher Scores on National Test


Gains on state eighth-grade reading tests have not translated into higher scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), according to a new analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. The analysis examined twenty-nine states and found that nineteen states reported an increase in the percentage of students who scored “proficient” or above on the state test from 2003 to 2005. However, no state showed a corresponding increase in the percentage of students at proficient or above on the national test (NAEP). In fact, only three states made progress at NAEP’s “basic” level.

“The much-discussed ‘race to the bottom’ appears to have begun,” said Fordham Foundation President Chester E. Finn, Jr. “If states ease their standards, construct simple-minded tests, or set low passing scores, they can mislead their own citizens and educators into thinking that just about everyone is proficient.”

The analysis found Alabama, California, Idaho, Arizona, Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky among the worst offenders. In these states, the difference between the percentage gain on the state test and the national test ranged from eleven to five percentage points. For example, while Alabama reported that an additional 11 percent of its students reached proficiency on its state test, no additional students scored at proficient on the national test. In Indiana, the state reported that an additional 3 percent of its students reached proficiency on the state test, but the percentage of Indiana students who scored at proficient on the national test actually declined by 5 percent.

Washington Post article noted that the mostly flat results on the NAEP test barely resembled the results on most state tests, which “tend to yield dramatic gains for a few years, level off, then vanish, eclipsed by a newer, better test.” In the article, state education officials stressed that while the material on the state test is drilled into students and acts as a singular focus for teachers, the material might not necessarily align with the national test. “Consensus is building among officials that ‘proficient’ on the national assessment more closely resembles ‘basic’ on the state tests,” the article reads.

The Fordham analysis noted that NAEP functions as an “external” audit of state progress toward proficiency under NCLB. “While you might expect to see stronger gains on state tests tied to state standards and curricula, a significant amount of those gains should show up on a benchmark test like NAEP, especially at the lower ‘basic’ level,” said Fordham Vice President Michael J. Petrilli. “Otherwise you have to ask whether states are blurring the truth to make themselves look better.”

The complete Fordham Foundation analysis is available at

“State Gains Not Echoed in Federal Testing” is available at



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