‘Nation’s Report Card’ Shows Little Progress in Reading

Last week brought the release of  the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results –– also known as the nation’s report card. The data measuring the performance of the country’s fourth and eighth-grade students showed some progress in math scores, but little improvement in reading scores.

In math, 2011 fourth-grade scores showed a one-point increase from the 2009 numbers and a 28-point increase from 1990. In reading, however, fourth-grade scores showed no increase since 2009, and rose only four points since 1992.

About one-third of students in reading and eighth-grade math and 40 percent of students in fourth-grade math were considered proficient.

The news was also mixed for minority groups. Although scores in math rose from 2009 to 2011 for Latino  students, the achievement gap was only narrowed among eighth-grade students.

In reading, scores for Latino students showed improvement in eighth grade from 2009 to 2011, but showed no significant gains among fourth-graders. The achievement gap in eighth-grade reading scores was also narrowed.

The report also includes other revealing findings:

  • The percent of students taking basic math classes was higher among black, Latino, and American Indian students.
  • The national average for all students was 220 in fourth-grade reading and 264 in eight-grade reading, compared to an average of 205 for Latino fourth-graders and 251 for Latino eighth-graders.
  • In math, the national average for all fourth-graders was 240 and for all eighth-graders was 283 , compared to an average of 229 for Latino fourth-graders and 269 for Latino eighth-graders.
  • Latino students in Montana scored the highest in eighth grade math in 2011, with an average score of 285. Latino eighth-graders in Alabama scored the lowest in math, with an average score of 255.
  • Maryland Latinos scored the highest in fourth grade math, with a 245 average; while Oregon scored the lowest in that group, with an average of 220.
  • In reading, Maryland had the highest state score among Latino fourth-graders with an average of 226; while Oregon ranked lowest with an average of 196. Among Latino eighth-graders, Kentucky scored the highest with a 264 average; the District of Columbia was at the bottom with an average of 239.
  • Fifty-four percent of Asian students said they were more likely to say they read almost every day, compared to 46 percent or less of other groups.
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Panel Will Discuss the Need for More Teacher Diversity

As the nation’s student body grows more diverse, the lack of minority teachers increasingly is becoming a more critical problem in school districts across the United States.  Non-white students make up more than 40 percent of public school students, yet only 17 percent of the country’s teachers are minorities. Studies have shown that students of color often perform better when they have a teacher of color.

Education reporters looking for ideas on how to tackle this story might want to check out a Center for American Progress discussion on the topic.

“Diverse Schools need Diverse Teachers: Strategies to Increase Diversity in the Teacher Workforce” will feature a panel of experts including representatives from the Center for Race and Poverty Research Action Council, The New Teacher Project and Teach Tomorrow in Oakland, California. The panel will take place November 9 from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. It will be streamed live on the Center for American Progress website.

In California, Finding the Story Behind the Statistics

One of the greatest challenges in education reporting is how to humanize data-driven stories. The beat abounds with statistics-laden research and reports thick with numbers and charts. And it’s important to report on trends and analyses these numbers illuminate.

But it’s even more important to keep a focus on the classroom and the kids reflected in all those reports and research.

Two recent stories in the Hechinger Report illustrate how to examine statistics through a human lens.

In this piece on English-Language Learners produced through a collaboration with California Watch, reporter Sarah Garland looks at the continuing achievement gap between ELL’s and other students in California.

The core of the story centers around several facts. The number of English learners in California is now up to about 1.5 million –about 25 percent of the state’s students. Nearly 85 percent of those students are Spanish speakers. Proposition 227, a 1998 law limiting the use of bilingual education, was touted as a way of improving student achievement through the use of English immersion programs. Yet, only 4 percent of California’s English learners were at least proficient in fourth-grade reading in 2009 on the reading section of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That’s down from 2003, when 6 percent tested as proficient.

Those numbers are powerful, revealing and relevant. But look at how Garland frames the story — by opening with a scene in a kindergarten classroom.

“The end of the school day in Patty Sanchez’s kindergarten class at Geddes Elementary School is not so different from other kindergarten classes around the state. Children gather on a rug as Sanchez holds up a storybook about a coyote and a turtle and reads out loud.

What’s different is that Sanchez is reading in Spanish.

Nearly all of the children in the room are Hispanic, and many are English-language learners. The few who are new to Spanish are expected to follow along with the story, too, and respond in Spanish to Sanchez’s questions.”

Immediately, the reader is taken past the world of dry numbers into a room filled with little children reading a picture book–the face of California’s future.

Throughout the piece, Garland weaves statistics, studies and expert opinions into scenes from the frontlines in the struggle to educate English Learners.

For instance, she visits Geddes Elementary, a suburban school with a dual-language program and a population of low-income, Hispanic students who also are English learners. This school has managed to close the achievement gap, with 60 percent of the school’s third-graders scoring proficient or advanced on state tests in English language arts.

Garland uses the same approach to examine the Hispanic-white reading gap in another piece, also produced in collaboration with California Watch. In this story, she zeroes in on schools in Soledad, California, described as “a small dot on the map along Highway 101 in the center of the state.”

Often, education writers must tackle breaking down complex national issues and confusing numbers for readers. One way to do that is to focus on one school, one district, one classroom or one family that reflects those huge issues.

As Garland notes: “In many ways, Soledad’s struggles mirror those of the state as a whole, which has one of the nation’s biggest gaps in reading performance between Hispanics and whites.”