NAEP 2011: The Reading First effect?

Last night was fun for the kids, but today is every education wonk’s favorite holiday: NAEP release day! Kevin Carey is already out with some savvy analysis; let me add some thoughts on the trends in reading.

The big news is that we finally eked out some statistically significant progress in 8th-grade reading. This goal has eluded us before, and has led commentators such as E.D. Hirsch to note that we’re not doing enough to build kids’ content knowledge and vocabulary. Initiatives like Reading First might have helped our youngsters to decode, goes the argument, but that’s not enough to create strong readers, especially as kids get older.

That’s still true, I think, but the NAEP results might indicate that those decoding skills are nothing to scoff at. The middle schoolers who took the NAEP last spring were in first grade in 2004–the heyday of Reading First implementation. It’s possible that scientifically-based reading instruction got them off to a better start as readers, and that head-start has been maintained through elementary and middle school. I can’t prove it (it’s NAEP–no one can prove anything!) but it’s a hypothesis worth exploring. Furthermore, the 8th graders who made the greatest progress since the early 2000s were the lowest-achievers–the very population Reading First was designed to help.

What’s disappointing is that 4th-grade reading results have held steady since 2007–after a big bump up (across all achievement levels) from 2005-2007. This one-time bump might be credited to Reading First (again, stress on “might”). But only a few states have continued making progress; in the last two years only Alabama, Hawaii, Maryland, and Massachusetts have done so. I can’t quite explain Maryland and Hawaii (OK, maybe they DO deserve Race to the Top funds, after all) but Alabama and Massachusetts have some of the most aggressive policies in place to promote research-based reading instruction. And it shows.

Again, these are just guesses. The big question going forward, it seems to me, is whether any of our reform efforts are like to lead to another big bump in test scores anytime soon. Large-scale initiatives like “accountability” and “parental choice” set the context for improvement, but they have rather indirect impacts on achievement. More focused instructional and teacher quality strategies–like implementing the Common Core standards or improving teaching through better evaluation systems–are more likely to result in big gains, it seems to me. Neither of those will be in full force until around 2013 or 2014. So I would expect more steady-state on NAEP scores for the time being, with our next big chance for major gains coming in 2015.

Those are my thoughts. What about you?

-Mike Petrilli

This post also appeared on Flypaper.

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