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STATES SHOWING SOME READING IMPROVEMENTS: Early Grades Raise Scores, but Older Students Continue to Struggle

In 2002, the last time twelfth graders were tested, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) found that average reading scores of students in fourth grade and eighth grade improved, but the average twelfth grade scores declined. As the latest round of standardized test results come in from states across the country, the pattern is continuing: reading scores are rising in the early grades, but are stagnant or falling in higher grades.

Milwaukee Fourth Graders Improve Reading Scores, Older Students Decline

According to the results on the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination, the percentage of fourth graders in Milwaukee’s public schools who scored at or above “proficient” in reading rose from 62 percent to 67 percent over last year. Meanwhile, Milwaukee eighth graders’ scores fell from 55 percent to 53 percent. Statewide, the decline was even greater, as Wisconsin eighth graders scored four points lower, falling from 83 percent to 79 percent.

The percentage of tenth graders who scored at the “proficient” level fell from 40 percent in 2002-03 to 35 percent this year. Even more disturbing, the achievement gap between African-American and Hispanic students and their white classmates grew wider. While white students’ scores only dropped one point, Hispanic students dropped three points and African-American students fell four points.

Achievement Gap Continues to Grow Among Milwaukee Tenth Graders

School Year

Source: Milwaukee Public Schools. Numbers represent the percentage of students considered “proficient” or better in reading.

New State, Same Story: Florida Fourth Graders See Dramatic Improvement, Eighth and Tenth Graders’ Scores Fall

In Florida, more than half of the state’s public school students are reading at grade level, for the first time in the state’s history. On the most recent Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) in reading, 51 percent of third through tenth graders read at grade level-last year it was 50 percent.

The push over the fiftieth percentile is largely attributable to the average increase in scores of fourth graders, which are up thirteen points over last year (from 305 to 318). School officials were quick to credit the gain to Florida’s new social promotion law, which ties a third grader’s reading ability, as measured by the FCAT, to their chances of progressing in school. Because of this law, they say, poor-performing third graders were kept back, which allowed fourth-grade scores to increase because they were not held down by these students. Also, third-grade scores were able to rise because the poor performers had another year of third grade.

However, the dramatic increase in fourth-grade scores was almost offset by the declines in eighth- and tenth-grade scores, which were down for the second straight year. Eighth-grade scores fell from 301 to 295, and the number of students reading at the lowest level increased by four points, from 26 percent to 30 percent. Tenth graders saw their scores fall from 302 last year to 300 this year, down from a high of 307 in 2001. The number of students reading at the lowest level increased, from 33 percent to 37 percent.

Bush Continues Reading Push: Highlights Reading First and Striving Readers

Last month, President George W. Bush made several public appearances to discuss Reading First and his Striving Readers Initiative. Reading First is a $1 billion program to improve the literacy of students in grades K-3. The Striving Readers Initiative is a $100 million program, included by Bush in his fiscal 2005 budget request, to fund research-based interventions that help improve the skills of teenage students who read below grade level.

Appearing at a Conversation on Reading First and No Child Left Behind at the National Institutes of Health on May 12, President Bush discussed his vision for the Striving Readers Initiative and the need for intervention programs for junior and high school students who struggle to read at grade level.

If you don’t hold people to account early in the system, it is likely people are going to get shuffled through the schools without being able to read. And we’re beginning to find out that’s the truth and we’re finding people in junior high and high school who can’t read. We need intensive intervention programs. At the very minimum, when a kid gets out of high school they ought to be able to read.


Appearing with the president was Don Deshler, director for the Center for Research on Learning at the University of Kansas, and a member of the Alliance’s adolescent literacy advisory group. Deshler discussed the Strategic Instruction Model (SIM), which he helped develop and validate at the center. SIM is a comprehensive approach to adolescent literacy that addresses the need of students to be able to read and understand large volumes of complex reading materials as well as express themselves effectively in writing.

Read the president’s speech at

More information on the Strategic Instruction Model is available at

New Adolescent Literacy Resources from the Alliance 

How to Know a Good Adolescent Literacy Program When You See One: Quality Criteria to Consider

While more research needs to be done in the area of adolescent literacy, there is growing agreement about some of the characteristics shared by successful literacy intervention programs. A new issue brief from the Alliance provides information to help policymakers, educators, parents, and others concerned with adolescent literacy make informed decisions about literacy programs for struggling readers and the programs’ suitability for specific groups of students. The brief is designed to help decisionmakers ask the right questions when assessing literacy programs for selection for federal, state, and local funding.

Read the brief and access other Alliance adolescent literacy information from the Alliance here.

The Alliance’s Adolescent Literacy Listserve

The Alliance is pleased to also announce the launch of its new adolescent literacy listserv. This listserv will act as a means to promote communication across organizations and individuals interested in improving the teaching and learning of literacy in secondary schools across the nation. We are hoping to use this listserv in two ways: to keep abreast of new reports and events involving adolescent literacy, and to discuss questions, promising practices, and findings in the field.

To join the listserv, please send an email to Iris Bond at with “SUBSCRIBE TO LISTSERV” in the subject line.

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