Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

Last month, new reading and math results for the “Nation’s Report Card” came out, and amidst the scores is a troubling recent trend among nine-year-old readers.

This version of the report card shows long-term NAEP scores (from the National Assessment of Educational Progress) for nine-, 13- and 17-year-olds. A nationally representative sample of approximately 26,300 students in all three age groups  took the reading assessment during the 2011-2012 school year.

“The assessment required students to read and answer questions based on a variety of materials, including informational passages, literary texts and documents… Students’ comprehension of these materials was assessed with both multiple-choice and constructed-response questions,” according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) website.

Sample questions from the long-term assessment for nine-year-olds are posted here. A summary of major findings is posted here.

The good news is that the reading scores of nine-year-olds have improved since the 1970s by 13 points – NAEP scores are measured on a zero to 500 point scale. Lower scoring students (at the 50th percentile or lower) made larger gains than their higher scoring peers.  And “scores for white, black and Hispanic nine-year-old students increased by 15, 36 and 25 points, respectively from the first assessment to 2012,” according to a report from Jack Buckley, the NCES commissioner.

There’s still cause for concern, however, because nine-year-olds have shown no recent improvement in reading.  Scores from 2008 to 2012 have been stagnant. This is true for boys and girls as well as for white, black and Hispanic children.

As parents, teachers, researchers and advocates know – and we emphatically repeat — children who can’t read proficiently by the end of third grade are more likely to struggle as they continue in school, and are less likely to be prepared to succeed in the workforce.

Another issue in the new NAEP results is the lagging performance of 17-year-olds.

“One of the most striking findings has as much to do with my role on the National Assessment Governing Board as it does with my roles as the principal of Shawnee Middle School, and as an educator in America,” Brent Houston writes in a statement. “I’m referring to a disturbing lack of improvement among 17-year-olds. Since the early 1970s, the average scores of 17-year-olds in both reading and mathematics have remained stagnant.”

And while the new NAEP scores shed some light on student performance, educators should heed a warning made by Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Nonie Lesaux in her report, “Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts for Reading Success,” where she writes, “Children’s development and the environments and opportunities they encounter daily are inextricably linked. Yet, the great majority of the assessment data we have focuses only on the students themselves.”

As Lesaux argues, the nation can’t just look at reading scores. We should also look at children’s individual learning experiences and environments. Did this child have the benefit of attending a high-quality preschool program with a language-rich environment? Did this child have good reading instruction in kindergarten as well in first and second grade?  Unless we systematically provide these types of supports for all young readers, NAEP scores will remain stagnant.

Lesaux sums it up, writing, “What children bring to the reading experience and what kinds of supports we provide greatly determine what they will get out of it.”