Solving A 'Student Achievement Crisis': Why Kids' Reading Scores Are Down

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Elize'a Scott, a Key Elementary School third grade student, right, reads under the watchful eyes of teacher Crystal McKinnis, left, Thursday, April 18, 2019, in Jackson, Miss. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)
Elize'a Scott, a Key Elementary School third grade student, right, reads under the watchful eyes of teacher Crystal McKinnis, left, Thursday, April 18, 2019, in Jackson, Miss. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

A national report card finds reading proficiency for American fourth-grade and eighth-grade students is declining. We go behind the numbers to understand why.


Liana Loewus, assistant managing editor for Education Week. (@LianaLoewus)

Emily Hanford, senior producer and education correspondent for APM Reports, part of American Public Media. (@ehanford)

Kelly Butler, CEO of the Barksdale Reading Institute.

Nell Duke, professor at the University of Michigan School of Education focused on early literacy development. (@nellkduke)

Interview Highlights

Why – after 30 years of administering the Nation’s Report Card – are reading proficiency scores still not great?

Liana Loewus: “The reading test is kind of interesting. In particular, it's hard to tell there because the new test is a test of reading comprehension. So, what comprehension is, you know, students will read a passage and they'll answer some questions about it. But what it doesn't test is there are really two pieces to comprehension. So, comprehension is two things. It's a product of how well a student can decode. So, how they can decipher the words on the page and know what they say. And how well they understand language. So, when you just test their comprehension — and read a passage, and answer questions — you can't tell if they struggle because they didn't understand the words on the page — they weren't able to decode those words, and tell what they were. Or, because they were able to read all the words, they just didn't have enough language skills and vocabulary — background knowledge — to know what they meant."

Emily Hanford: “Even for a skilled reader, the simple view of reading is actually basically like a math, it's like an equation. It's decoding ability — or ability to recognize words in print – times your language comprehension. And your language comprehension is just all the words that you know the meaning of in oral language. And it includes background knowledge, and lots of other things about your sort of understanding of the way that language works — putting aside written language, for now. So, if you multiply these two things together — your decoding ability and your language comprehension — you multiply those two things together, and you get your reading comprehension.

"So when a little kid comes into school, what they have is some amount of stuff on the language comprehension side of the equation. Kids know how to say a lot of words. Some kids know a lot more words than others. And this is how family background, and poverty in particular, can have a fairly big impact on reading abilities. Because what you sort of know can really be influenced by your family background. But when you come into school, kids tend to have something on the language comprehension side of the equation. What they don't have any of, or maybe just a little bit of, is an understanding of the decoding side of the equation. So, if your goal is to get little kids to reading comprehension, you want to work off their language comprehension, and teach them how to read those words. They know the meaning of lots of words, but not how to read them.”

"If your goal is to get little kids to reading comprehension, you want to work off their language comprehension, and teach them how to read those words. They know the meaning of lots of words, but not how to read them."

Emily Hanford

Were you surprised that the latest nation's report card found that barely one-third of fourth graders are proficient in reading?

Emily Hanford: "I'm not surprised, because it's a trend. And I think … even more shocking here is just the percentage of kids that can't even read on a basic level. So, we've got one-third of kids who can't even read on a basic level. And it's a trend. We have seen some of the states that have traditionally been performing a little bit better, even go down. States like Massachusetts, for example, saw a drop in their scores, as Liana [Loewus] talked about. This was really across the board, across demographic groups, across states, except for the one outlier. … So, no, I was not surprised to see it. One of the things that I think would be interesting and enlightening to talk about is the role of poverty when it comes to learning how to read.

"I think we have a narrative in this nation that our scores are the way they are because we have a lot of poor kids. And poor kids are going to have a hard time learning to read. And poverty definitely has an impact on reading development. But what's really interesting is that there are now decades of research that come from the cognitive sciences, from psychology, from linguistics, from speech pathology, from neuroscience. There's this gigantic body of evidence about how people learn to read. Like how skilled reading works, how people learn to do it, and what's going on when kids struggle. And what I have found in my reporting is that that body of evidence is not making its way in to schools of education, or schools. So, what a lot of teachers are taught about reading — if they're taught much of anything — is not really lining up very well with that scientific research. And in some cases, it's really at odds with that research. So, there are a lot of misunderstandings and misconceptions just about the basics of how reading development works, that I have found all over schools. And I think that's part of what's going on.”

"There are a lot of misunderstandings and misconceptions just about the basics of how reading development works, that I have found all over schools. And I think that's part of what's going on."

Emily Hanford

Say we're in a first- or second-grade classroom. What is reading instruction supposed to look like ideally?

Nell Duke: "It's been pointed out by your guests, one of the things we want to focus on for sure are what we call those foundational skills — that’s phonological awareness, that’s phonics — it's understanding how print works. And although we don't know exactly how many minutes a day to spend on that, most experts recommend between 30 and 60 minutes a day that's focused on that. So, you might ask, ‘What else is happening over the course of a school day?’ So, another thing that we need to spend a lot of time on with young children is developing their content knowledge. So, their understanding of science and social studies, their vocabulary related to academic topics. We know from scientific research that those also have a big impact on literacy levels and reading achievement. So, that's a focus.

"We also need to teach kids about texts. So, for example, there's quite a bit of scientific research that if you teach children how text is structured, for example, that sometimes it compares and contrasts a topic, or sometimes it presents a problem and then a solution. If you teach those kinds of structures to children — above and beyond teaching content — it raises reading comprehension achievement as well. So, I'm just giving you a sense of the many different things that need to happen over the course of a school day, in order to develop strong readers and writers.”

What Our Listeners Had To Say

Nationwide, reading scores on the National Assessment for Education Program, also called NAEP or the Nation’s Report Card, are either dropping or holding steady. We asked listeners what they’ve noticed in their own communities — and what they think is going on.

Several listeners think that technology and distractions might be to blame.

“Just because kids AREN'T reading doesn't mean they CAN'T read. How many children are foregoing Fortnite for a good book?” tweeted Susan Kahn, an assistant professor at Northwestern State University in Louisiana.”

“I’m a high school librarian and we’ve had a huge drop off in reading for pleasure the last few years,” Amanda Smithfield wrote on Twitter. “Certainly, kids have other entertainment options, but I think kids lack reading stamina, too. Kids will listen to a podcast, though!”

Other listeners homed in on instruction.

Caron Trout from Boulder, Colorado, said on Twitter that “this is a nationwide issue of illiteracy - Teachers are failed by their [teacher] prep programs, have no explicit reading teaching skills.”


Caller Chelsea Fair from Johnson City, Tennessee, said her teacher training at East Tennessee State University has focused on building reading skills even beyond the early grades. She’s working toward her license to teach sixth through 12th grade history, and currently a student teaches ninth graders.

“I think it’s crucial to continue focusing on literacy in middle and high school level when students are falling more and more behind, especially if they never got those skills in the early grades,” she said.

From The Reading List

APM Reports: "At a Loss for Words: How a flawed idea is teaching millions of kids to be poor readers" — "Molly Woodworth was a kid who seemed to do well at everything: good grades, in the gifted and talented program. But she couldn't read very well.

"'There was no rhyme or reason to reading for me,' she said. 'When a teacher would dictate a word and say, "Tell me how you think you can spell it," I sat there with my mouth open while other kids gave spellings, and I thought, "How do they even know where to begin?" I was totally lost.'

"Woodworth went to public school in Owosso, Michigan, in the 1990s. She says sounds and letters just didn't make sense to her, and she doesn't remember anyone teaching her how to read. So she came up with her own strategies to get through text.

"Strategy 1: Memorize as many words as possible. 'Words were like pictures to me,' she said. 'I had a really good memory.'

"Strategy 2: Guess the words based on context. If she came across a word she didn't have in her visual memory bank, she'd look at the first letter and come up with a word that seemed to make sense. Reading was kind of like a game of 20 Questions: What word could this be?

"Strategy 3: If all else failed, she'd skip the words she didn't know.

"Most of the time, she could get the gist of what she was reading. But getting through text took forever. 'I hated reading because it was taxing,' she said. 'I'd get through a chapter and my brain hurt by the end of it. I wasn't excited to learn.'

"No one knew how much she struggled, not even her parents. Her reading strategies were her 'dirty little secrets.' "

New York Times: "Reading Scores on National Exam Decline in Half the States" — "America’s fourth and eighth graders are losing ground in their ability to read literature and academic texts, according to a rigorous national assessment released Wednesday that is likely to fuel concerns over student achievement after decades of tumult on the educational landscape.

"Two out of three children did not meet the standards for reading proficiency set by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test administered by the National Center for Education Statistics, the research arm of the Education Department.

"The dismal results reflected the performance of about 600,000 students in reading and math, whose scores made up what is called the “nation’s report card.” The average eighth-grade reading score declined in more than half of the states compared with 2017, the last time the test was given. The average score in fourth-grade reading declined in 17 states. Math scores remained relatively flat in most states."

Mississippi Today: "As thousands of third-graders prep for reading retest, districts and literacy coaches work to remove barriers" — "Shameka Woods’ classroom was buzzing on a recent Monday morning, where eleven students sat at their desks and sounded out a reading passage about bees, ants and termites.

"The students were working through a handout to answer reading comprehension questions. When the students got tripped up over a question that required them to use the text to determine what makes the insects similar, Woods walked them through it.

"'OK, what did we say the word similar means?' she asked.

"A student raised his hand and offered a tentative answer. 'Alike?'

"'OK. So we want to know how worker ants and worker bees are similar. So where do I go in my passage to find this answer? What subheading?'

"A student shouted out a reply, but quickly trailed off because he wasn’t reading from the paper.

"'You’re guessing, Justin!' Woods said. 'Look at the passage.' "

This program aired on November 19, 2019.



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