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“THE PROBLEM IS LITERACY IN THE MIDDLE GRADES”: Sharp Drop in Reading Scores After Fifth Grade Leads to Concern in New York State

“Despite improvements in elementary school over the past several years, the Grade 3–8 results show substantially lower achievement starting in the sixth grade,” said Richard Mills

New York students posted relatively high scores in reading and writing in the elementary grades, but scores dropped dramatically after the fifth grade, according to the results from a new comprehensive testing system that the state adopted last year. The state developed the new test in an effort to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act’s requirement that students be tested every year in grades 3 through 8. Combined with the state’s new individual student data system, the new tests will allow schools to track students from grade-to-grade and to compare student performance from year-to-year. In the past, New York only tested students in grades 4 and 8.

According to an article in the New York Times, student performance on these past tests should have served as a harbinger of the disappointing scores on this year’s test. “The pattern of relatively good performance at the elementary level and lackluster results in middle school had been apparent in the annual fourth- and eighth-grade exams, which New York administered from 1999 until last year,” the article reads. “While fourth graders posted big gains, with 70.4 percent on grade in 2005, up from 48 percent in 1999, eighth-grade scores were flat and unimpressive at 48.1 percent over the same time period.”

In past years, state officials explained away low eighth-grade scores by stressing that students were required to demonstrate mastery on more complex subjects. This year, however, test results demonstrated a steady decline in test scores, with a significant drop off after grade 5 that state officials could not ignore. In an ironic twist, a higher percentage of eighth-grade students (49.3 percent) met standards this year than they did last year (48.1 percent) when state officials were reluctant to sound the alarm.

“Despite improvements in elementary school over the past several years, the Grade 3–8 results show substantially lower achievement starting in the sixth grade,” said Richard Mills, state education commissioner for New York. “The problem is literacy in the middle grades. These results demand improvement in curriculum, instruction, and professional development.”

At a press conference announcing the test results, Mills said that there was a “widespread and dangerous slacking off in literacy instruction beginning in the fifth grade at many schools throughout the state,” as reported by the New York Times. “[Students] certainly are not learning to read in a powerful way; they certainly are not learning to write as they should. Adult literacy scores are too low, but this is where it begins. … We have to do something different. We have to change our tactics, our curriculum, our approach.”

Mills said that the New York State Board of Regents was considering several new actions to improve students’ reading performance. Specifically, he said that new teachers—especially in elementary and middle schools—needed to know how to teach reading. In addition, he said that current teachers should have adequate professional development on how to teach reading and that scientifically based reading strategies should be available and used in low-performing schools. For students, Mills said that more intensive classes should be made available to underserved students to ensure that they learn how to read. He added that all students should read 25 books a year and write 1,000 words a month.

More information on the results, including Commissioner Mills’ press release and a PowerPoint presentation, is available at


IES Accepting Grant Proposals on Interventions for Struggling Adolescent and Adult Readers and Writers


A significant number of adolescent and adult readers cannot read well enough to make sense of short passages, much less the longer stretches of text that most readers are expected to understand everyday. In fact, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 27 percent of eighth graders and 26 percent of twelfth graders read significantly below grade level. Research has shown that adolescents who are struggling readers are at high risk of dropping out of high school without a diploma, graduating unprepared for college, and having limited opportunities in the workforce.

Through its Research on Interventions for Struggling Adolescent and Adult Readers and Writers grants program, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, is now accepting grant applications for reading and writing interventions and assessments that are designed to improve the outcomes for these individuals. The IES defines struggling adolescent readers as middle or high school students who have not been identified with learning disabilities, but whose reading or writing skills are at least two years below grade level. In defining struggling adult readers and writers, the Institute means adults whose reading and writing skills prevent them from carrying out simple daily tasks.

In awarding grants, the IES hopes to be able to support the identification, development, and validation of approaches that can improve the outcomes of struggling adolescent and adult readers and writers. Its long-term goal is to develop an array of tools and strategies that have been deemed effective for improving the reading and writing skills of struggling readers and writers.

The IES is particularly interested in research efforts targeting adolescents and adults who may be able to read and write, but whose performance level impedes their success either in the classroom or in the workplace.

More information about program guidelines, as well as a grant application for download, is available at


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