Monday, November 7, 2011

Will Flat NAEP Reading Scores Mean More Flat Reading Instruction?

At first I was annoyed with Matthew Di Carlo of the Shanker Blog for criticizing people for things they hadn't yet said. Speaking of the NAEP, he predicted, "People on all 'sides' will interpret the results favorably no matter how they turn out." But, he was right.

The results in my state of Virginia, were reported in The Richmond Times-Dispatch as follows
Virginia's fourth- and eighth-graders perform better in reading and mathematics than their peers nationwide, but less than two-fifths have a solid grasp of reading and less than half have a solid grasp of math. . . . In math, 40 percent of Virginia eighth-graders achieved proficient scores in 2011, up from 36 percent in 2009, according to the report. Forty-six percent of fourth-graders performed at the proficient level, compared to 43 percent in 2009.
According to VA DOE spokesman Charles Pyle, in short, Virginia students did relatively well nationally, but there's much room for improvement, especially in reading:
A lack of significant improvement in Virginia's eighth-grade NAEP reading scores over the last couple testing cycles as well as on state achievement tests has informed state efforts to pursue more rigorous standards in the subject, Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said. The new reading standards will take effect in 2012-13.
Oh dear. "More rigorous standards in reading"? Aren't they already "rigorous" enough? Let me enter the fray and tell you why I think reading scores are unimpressive in Virginia and flat nationally: Because in the (albeit, well-intentioned) mania to make American kids better readers, we're spending overwhelming amounts of time teaching reading as a subject, as a skill, at the expense of teaching knowledge of other subjects such as science, social studies, foreign language, art, music, PE, theater, etc.

Yes, my children spend more time on math than on other subjects, but that doesn't bother me nearly as much. Now, I don't know much about teaching math but from what I can tell from the elementary math curriculum used in the Virginia county where my kids attend school and from what I can tell from the work they bring home, yes, they are learning different strategies to solve math problems, but they are also learning math facts.

There is such a thing as math strategies. There is such a thing as mastering the mechanics of reading, which is essentially decoding and there is such a thing as reading strategies, but they aren't nearly as useful or applicable as math strategies and needn't be taught nearly to the extent that they are. There is such a thing as math facts. But there is no such thing as reading facts; there's just facts, background knowledge, and vocabulary, the more of which one knows, the better of a reader that one will be.

On a series of posts on Eduwonk between Eric Hanushek and Diane Ravitch about Hanushek's tiresome silver bullet solution of firing the bottom 5-10% of teachers based on standardized test scores (yes, teachers who don't do their jobs or who do them poorly should be removed, but I have no confidence that Hanushek's handwaving gimmickry will achieve that), superb edu-thinker Diana Senechal commented that:
We talk so much about achievement but do not adequately address the question “achievement of what?” This explains, in part, why “literacy” scores are much more stubborn and difficult to raise than math scores. There is no such subject as literacy, and we are spinning our wheels trying to teach it. There is literature, grammar, rhetoric, composition. Teach those things, and you will see some gains. (Math curricula are far from perfect in this country–but at least, in comparison with literacy curricula, they have some sort of substance and sequence.)
Exactly. Beyond teaching decoding and some limited reading strategies, if we want our children to be stronger readers, we need to teach them content (which yes, includes language arts as just outlined by Diana).

While Jeff Bryant did well to point out that NAEP shouldn't be looked at as a report card per se and "Nation At Risk" co-author James Harvey highlighted some short comings of NAEP as an assessment, I still fear the influence of these NAEP results over instruction and curriculum decisions. I worry that with NAEP reading scores being "flat," that educators and reformers will take an even more draconian and ill-informed approach, and call for beefing up reading standards and spending even more time on teaching reading and even less on everything else. For example, in a recent essay in Education Week unrelated to the NAEP release of NAEP results, Eric Witherspoon, superintendent of District 202 in Evanston, Illinois, called for just that:
Reading is the gateway to all learning. Literacy must be addressed in every classroom, every day—reading strategies must be an integral part of history class and math class and of physical and technical education. At ETHS, teachers receive training to help them implement literacy-learning strategies in everything from history and math to physical education.
Certainly, all public school teachers in America should be prepared to work with and help struggling readers, but do we really need kids in PE, math, and history to learn reading strategies? What will that serve other than teaching our kids to know less about PE, math, and history (and every other subject) than they already do. Yes, reading is a tool to learn content--indeed, it's a "gateway to learning"--but learning content is the gateway to becoming a stronger reader and more educated in general.

Matthew Di Carlo's prediction was right on. Let's hope for the education of our children that mine isn't.


  1. Hooray, Rachel! This piece is right on target. And thanks for the quotation; I am honored.

  2. Thanks, Diana. You'd better get used to being quoted here--I have many posts in the works that include things you've said and written.