Flashing Red Over Reading

Results from the 2019 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) showed that reading scores for fourth- and eighth-graders in the U.S. have dropped since 2017, after several years of minimal upward progress, prompting cries of “reading emergency” and “crisis.” Such reactions are likely to be used to further political agendas while we ignore the real crisis—the persistence of the achievement gap.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos used the results to attack the K–12 education sector. “Blame the experts who assure us each year that American education is doing OK,” Devos said, “that our schools are good enough. ‘If you just look at these numbers hard enough,’ they say, ‘you’ll see some improvement in some subject for some students somewhere.'”

DeVos even claimed that funding increases would not help. “It’s way past time we dispense with the idea that more money for school buildings buys better achievement for school students,” she said. “No amount of spending can bring about good results from bad policy.”

To improve results, the secretary suggested copying the example of Florida, where lawmakers have introduced school choice programs, despite there being no evidence of a correlation between school choice and academic success. “Doing better began with introducing education freedom,” she said. “Public charter schools, tax-credit scholarship programs, education savings accounts, vouchers—students in Florida have more mechanisms for education freedom than anywhere else in the country.”

According to the NAEP, we should be focusing elsewhere: “The dominant theme that emerges is the appearance of a growing divergence in achievement between the highest and lowest achieving students. This divergence is seen for the nation as a whole, across states, and for student groups by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status.”

“The persistent gaps in reading achievement of students from low-income backgrounds, students of color, English learners, and students with disabilities on the NAEP require urgent action,” said John King, CEO of the Education Trust and former education secretary for the Obama administration, adding, “As a nation, if we fail to honor students’ right to literacy, we threaten the long-term health and well-being not just of our economy but of our democracy.”

For the last century in the U.S., there have been consistent claims of a “reading crisis” irrespective of how reading has been taught. NAEP scores, like all standardized test scores, correlate most with out-of-school factors, like income, race, and language, so action to improve results should be focused on closing the achievement gap.

Mississippi and the District of Columbia were the only jurisdictions to see significant improvements in both math and reading in the NAEP. Since 2003, Mississippi has risen from nearly last place among states to the national average in fourth-grade math and reading. Over the past 16 years, the District of Columbia has boasted larger gains in reading than any other state or district that participates in the NAEP.

In 2010, Mississippi adopted rigorous academic content standards. Three years later, it adopted sweeping legislation that coupled higher state education funding with a focus on early reading, teacher training and support, and a clearer school rating system.

Regardless of how students learn to read, the data show that closing the achievement gap is the key to improved reading results, and increased funding for schools in low-income, high-minority areas is still the only clear route to closing the gap.

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