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Dr. Joanne Meier

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Reading scores, and a closer look at urban scores

May 24, 2010

Most of us are familiar with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), whose scores form the Nation's Report Card. The most recent Report Card came out in March 2010, and scores suggested students reading performance from 2007 to 2009 remained essentially flat. As before, almost a third of the nation's fourth graders performed Below Basic, and for subgroups, the failure rate is even higher: 52% of black students, 51% of Hispanic students, and 49% of students in poverty all scored Below Basic.

What's Below Basic mean? According to NAEP, fourth-grade Basic students should be able to:

Locate relevant information, make simple inferences, and use their understanding of the text to identify details that support a given interpretation or conclusion. Students should be able to interpret the meaning of a word as it is used in the text.

That means Below Basic students can't do those things.

But it's not all bad news. The nation's worst readers appear to have made significant gains in reading over the last decade. The average scores of fourth graders in the bottom 10 percent for reading increased by 16 points from 2000 to 2009. During that same period, the average scores of the nation's best fourth-grade readers, those in the top 10 percent, rose by only 2 points. Analysts at the Brookings Brown Center attribute the gains for the lowest readers to the accountability systems at the state and federal level that focused attention on the lowest achievers.

Last week the Nation's Report Card folks took a closer look at the results for urban districts. In this new report, authors compare the performance of students in urban districts to public school students in the nation and large cities. The results are a mixed bag. Most of the participating districts performed below the national average, but four urban districts had scores that increased since 2007. That's great news for students in Boston, the District of Columbia, Houston, and New York City.

There are intra-group differences too. For example, the reading average score for lower-income grade 4 students in Boston was higher than the score for lower-income fourth-graders nationally. There are many other analyses in the report, as well as the opportunity to use the Data Explorer to customize the queries you need. There's also a very cool Motion Chart that enables the user to visualize how district performance changes over time.

There are a lot of data. And one thing that's clear, there's also a lot of work to do.

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"There is no substitute for books in the life of a child." — May Ellen Chase