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Schools making progress on literacy, with Jeffrey M. Jones (San Jose Mercury News) August 22, 2005

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays.

After decades of disappointment, test scores are finally beginning to rise.

Most of us dreaded report cards. Every semester, a single slip of paper sought to summarize our successes and failures with a short list of letters: A, B, C, D or F.

This summer, the nation’s student body as a whole received an important report card. This is one educators and policy makers have come to dread because the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Long-term Trends, issued every few years, had essentially shown no progress. Despite huge investments in improved literacy, U.S. schoolchildren were not reading materially better than their peers 35 years ago when the testing began.

Finally, this year’s “progress” report showed some progress. Although reading scores for older students remained flat, there was some improvement in 13-year-olds and noticeable progress by the youngest group, 9-year-olds.

The 2004 NAEP report found that “9-year-olds scored higher than in any previous assessment year,” going back to 1971. The sharpest gains have come in just the last five years.

Further, the persistent achievement gap between white and minority students has narrowed, not because white students are doing worse, but because minority students are reading better. Half of the reduction of the gap was in the past five years.

Already, Washington is taking credit for the positive results, suggesting that its No Child Left Behind Act is responsible. The whole story, however, is longer and more complicated.

A lot of the energy behind improving literacy policy came from a visible failure. A movement called “whole language” captured the fancy of many educators and policy makers in the 1980s, teaching students to get a whole sense of words, rather than breaking them down phonetically.

It didn’t work, but declining test scores prompted policy makers to focus on what did work.

In California, hearings focused on the failure of whole language, and conversely, on the potential of scientifically based phonics instruction, in which students learn to ready by identifying the letters of the alphabet and decoding language. When he was governor of Texas, George W. Bush led a charge for a statewide regime of mandatory testing and accountability.

Also, several Southern states renewed emphasis on all aspects of literacy. Governors such as Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Richard Riley of South Carolina, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and others understood that their states were behind in education generally and in literacy specifically and began a series of investments and initiatives. Many of the gains in the recent NAEP report were driven by improvements in Southern states. The South gained more than twice as much as the Northeast among 9-year-olds over the past 30-plus years, and accounted for nearly all the gains among 13-year-olds.

If you had asked 15 years ago for the three rules of improving literacy, the truth was that we didn’t know. Everyone had a different theory. But we are beginning to understand what works. Increased emphasis and investment in reading in younger ages is important, especially for disadvantaged kids. Phonics-based instruction has now been demonstrated as a superior method for teaching reading. And testing students is an important form of research and accountability.

The No Child Left Behind Act has codified these effective practices, but the federal law, which went into effect in 2002, is too recent to have had much influence on 2004 testing. And one can reasonably debate the wisdom of the federal government becoming so active in literacy and education, fields previously left to state and local authorities.

But for now, Americans can celebrate an improved report card. Perhaps the “rising tide of mediocrity” that a special federal commission observed in America public education in the late 20th century is moving out, making way for a new wave of educational policies that really work.

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