Johnny Still Can’t Read

It was a bad week to write anything about schools. The NAEP test scores came out, and that’s the big story. Nobody cares that school buildings are falling down, when the kids can’t read. I might argue that it’s all tied together, but I won’t today.

Let’s just talk about the scores themselves. Basically, scores have stayed flat for thirty years. Only 1/3 of American kids are on grade level for math and reading.

The big question is why. Brace yourself for a 1,000 thought pieces on this topic in the next few weeks. Is it because the teachers aren’t teaching phonics? Is it because kids are glued to their cellphones? Is it because parents are working too much and aren’t helping their kids? Is there enough teacher accountability? Do we need more charter schools?

I don’t know. I think we need more of everything, and there’s no one right answer.

But what really has me worried is what happens to these kids as they become barely literate high school graduates. We’re pushing them off to colleges, where they get stuck in remedial classes that are trying to teach skills that they should have learned in middle school. Most drop out of college; others major in things like Leisure Studies or Sports Management and then can’t find a proper job after graduation. There are fewer jobs for adults without those basic skills.

I’m not sure why education isn’t a national priority. I don’t know why it isn’t the top issue in a presidential election. I’m not sure why we push education stories to the back pages of newspapers and journals. For me, it’s Ground Zero for a better world.

44 thoughts on “Johnny Still Can’t Read

  1. “But what really has me worried is what happens to these kids as they become barely literal literate high school graduates.”

    Usual proofreading fee is waived. (I would also make “dropout” two words when used as a verb.)


  2. Today’s employment report suggests that there are, indeed, jobs for all these poorly-educated high school graduates. So that’s probably the reason why no one is too concerned about our schools. Our educational system works very well at educating anyone who actually wants to be educated, and our economic system works very well at providing jobs for those at all levels of educational achievement. I doubt that any other country can match those twin achievements.


    1. Ah, grandiose theory based on incompletely relevant metrics. Guess how many countries have officially reported unemployment statistics equal to or better than the US? Perhaps if unemployment numbers minimization is the goal of education we should emulate the educational system of one of the others.


  3. I have three different data points on this that I can’t really put together.

    1. It’s not exactly true that NAEP scores are flat. I don’t know if this source is reputable, but there may have been an explosion in Asian students scoring at the 90th percentile:

    Whites have also trended up substantially and blacks and Hispanics have also trended up.

    Some possibilities:

    –Did the test get easier?


    –Are Asian parents pouring on the coals, perhaps because of concerns about anti-Asian discrimination in college admissions?


    –Are more Asian parents native English speakers, and hence able to be more effective with providing reading help?

    More in a bit!


    1. 2. My oldest has put in some time doing reading tutoring at a public elementary school that is 3/4 black and Hispanic and 97% free/reduced lunch. I was able to glean from listening to her that at least one of her tutoring kids was sounding out the first two letters of unknown words and then guessing wildly. I have no idea what caused that. Maybe not enough phonics, not enough individual reading-aloud-to-adult practice, too much missed school? (The school has issues with absenteeism and suspensions.) Or maybe an undiagnosed learning disability? I do not have enough information to say, but something had gone seriously wrong.

      I’ve been at that school a number of times and it’s a reasonably pleasant place in terms of staff and facilities (the school was built about 10 years ago)–but rates them as a 1 for test scores.

      3. OK, here’s my last anecdote. Youngest is 7 and in 1st grade this year. After Tiger Momming our oldest child (now a 12th grader) pretty hard through phonics and arithmetic and doing the same to a lesser extent for our middle child (now a 9th grader) and having been at the same school for 12+ years, I have been much more relaxed with youngest. She’s a little slow with her reading–well, she’s making progress, right? I’m sure it’s fine! (I have been reading Bryan Caplan lately, who is the king of “your middle class kid is going to be FINE!”)

      So I go to my fall parent-teacher conference and get her quarterly report card and see that things are not fine at all, particularly in reading. Despite a beautiful school, a great peer group, $7k+ a year in tuition, traditional phonics out her ears, a comfortably UMC family, going to school scrupulously and doing all her homework–youngest is struggling with reading. Her decoding is fine, it’s just that she isn’t keeping up with her peers in terms of fluency. And she’s at least half a year older than most of them due to a fall birthday…

      There are a number of things that we are going to do to address the reading issues (investigate ADHD and be fanatical about making sure she has daily home reading practice until this resolves), but this has been a valuable lesson with regard to how some kids need EVERYTHING to go right, or they will struggle, and how even great socioeconomics and a great school aren’t quite enough, and that there is a lot of utility in worrying, and that a little worry early on (for example, over reading trouble in 1st grade) can save a lot of trouble later on (like in 3rd or 4th grade).

      (I’ll add here that there is a traditionally a lot of happy talk about how kids mostly learn to read by 3rd grade so don’t worry until then! But if the kid gets to 3rd or 4th grade being a slow reader and then it’s time to start reading to learn rather than just learning to read, kid is going to be in HUGE trouble.)


      1. AmyP, I would not blame your school. Have you heard of the term “stealth dyslexia?” Does this description fit your child?

        Or, a friend has a child who had a reading challenge. She could understand texts fine–if she could read them out loud, or move her lips. Her comprehension of written text was much worse if she could not “hear” herself read. IIRC, that meant a 504 to allow her to take tests in a setting which allowed her to read the test aloud.

        That might apply to your child–after all, we check as to whether a child can decode by asking her to read a word aloud. Then we expect the same process works flawlessly, for everyone, in silent reading.

        But I would not go over the top in terms of forced practice. That could set up a cycle of your child hiding her difficulties, to make you happy. I recommend more trips to the library, and maybe some investigations of activities she particularly enjoys. For example, if she likes cooking with you, reading the recipes to you could be a fun way to practice reading.


      2. Cranberry said,

        “Have you heard of the term “stealth dyslexia?” Does this description fit your child?”

        There are some aspects that do match up (reading/speech disparity and handwriting issues) but others that don’t (our 7-year-old has virtually perfect spelling on tests and she doesn’t have skips when reading).

        My current theory is that ADHD is driving her reading problems. She loved books as a toddler (she’d have me read half a dozen at a time), but as a preschooler, she turned anti-book. In fact, from about 3-6.5 she was actively hostile to being read to or taken to the library. She seemed to have a very hard time following read-aloud stories. My husband read to her a bunch (he was reading her the Chronicles of Narnia but gave up mid-way through The Horse and His Boy when she just wasn’t interested and wasn’t getting it) and she read maybe 70 phonics booklets at home as a K/early 1st grade student, including 5 boxes of Bob books. We weren’t getting a lot of traction, but I felt like she was progressing, but then I got a lot of bad news a couple weeks ago at her last parent-teacher conference and her quarter grades with regard to reading, handwriting and math.

        She has had a lot of issues with being able to sit still and pay attention to books, both when she is reading and being read to. I think that attention problems and hyperactivity are the bottleneck that has been keeping her from making progress with reading. We are seeing some faster progress now and I think she is getting traction. My husband is reading The Hobbit to her right now (which is if anything harder and longer than The Chronicles of Narnia) and she seems to be taking it in better and have better stamina for listening. We’re also religiously doing reading practice almost every night–not huge amounts of it, just extremely consistently. (Previously this term, there had been a lot of times when she just got read to rather than reading to us.) I let her choose at least a book a month from the Scholastic order sheet and she just got a bunch from the big library book sale. Again, my husband and I both think that she is improving a lot and we’re seeing her do a lot more spontaneous reading of words she happens to see, but I won’t really know until I check in with her teacher in a week or two, because I can only measure how she is doing compared to herself–I don’t know how she compares to her classmates or where they want her to be right now.

        One of the problems here is that we can’t realistically work intensively on everything that school has mentioned is a problem. She’s in school 7.5 hours a day, she has speech 2.5 hours a week, she has Wednesday night church, she has speech homework twice a week, she has her school homework 5 nights a week, she also has a 12th grader sibling and a 9th grader sibling who have their stuff…So we can’t work on everything at once and make progress–in fact, just keeping up with the basics is fairly challenging. We’re also waiting for other people to do their stuff and waiting for an appointment opening.

        I often think to myself (apologies for SAHM black humor), good thing I don’t have a real job!

        Heck if I know how anybody with a more challenging lifestyle (single parent, no SAHP, less parent availability in the evening, worse insurance, ESL parents, other sibling with issues, worse school, less money for throwing at problems, etc.) manages the same issues.


  4. I teach these high school graduates, and not the highest performing ones. What I think is this: reading is a skill. We become better readers by reading. A lot. The same goes for writing. We become better writers by reading a lot.

    I spend a lot of time unteaching what high school teachers have taught. Or rather, what students think high school teachers are teaching. Because students also do not listen well, they hear advice and suggestions as rules. Or perhaps the teachers do teach them what should be guidelines as hard and fast rules.

    The only way to escape that rulebound mindset is to read more writing, writing that breaks these “rules” regularly but still manages to convey content effectively.


    1. Tulip said,

      “educational attainment has moved upwards quite smoothly over time – at odds with the thirty years of stagnation.”

      That’s just more years in school–it’s not necessarily more education happening.


  5. Tulip wrote, “Yes, but so many seem to assume that that means people are more educated.”

    If maximizing time-in-school is our goal, then 7-year BAs ought to be way more valuable than 4-year BAs.


    1. That’s not what the graph shows. It shows the number who have completed high school or college by the given age. So what you call more years of schooling is more credentials completed. It specifically references completing high school and college – not just attended college. Your example, the 7 yr and 4 yr BA would be counted the same. Not a 7 yr viewed as better.

      If the graph is measuring what you claim – just more years of schooling, then a BA has no value. I do argue that many people with BAs are not educated, but most people assume that someone with a BA is more educated than someone without. I’d be very surprised to find you aren’t one of them.


      1. Tulip said, “That’s not what the graph shows. It shows the number who have completed high school or college by the given age.”

        Sorry! I wasn’t talking about the chart specifically, but about philosophy.

        I’d argue that years of education is an input, not an output.

        You’re right that that’s less true of degrees–but at the extremes, a good high school education is more impressive than a bad college education. Imagine the bottom 10% in the most Mickey Mouse possible major from the worst 4-year college in the country, contrasted with the top 10% of say Thomas Jefferson in VA or Bronx Science or whatever is the most impressive high school in your area. It is not the case that every single BA is more accomplished than every single high school graduate.

        See also graduate school. My husband has mentioned on various occasions that when he visits elite colleges, the undergraduates are (on average) at least as smart as graduate students at less elite institutions (on average).

        High school diplomas, BAs, and graduate degrees vary a lot in value depending on where they come from.

        “If the graph is measuring what you claim – just more years of schooling, then a BA has no value. I do argue that many people with BAs are not educated, but most people assume that someone with a BA is more educated than someone without. I’d be very surprised to find you aren’t one of them.”

        You might want to ask first before assuming!

        As I mentioned previously in this answer–it depends.


      2. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been reading Bryan Caplan’s “The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money.”

        It’s pretty sophistical in spots, but the book is a good grab bag for education stats.

        One of the ones I came across there is that undergraduates today spend a lot less time on school work than 1960s undergraduates.

        “But new research, conducted by two California economics professors, shows that over the past five decades, the number of hours that the average college student studies each week has been steadily dropping. According to time-use surveys analyzed by professors Philip Babcock, at the University of California Santa Barbara, and Mindy Marks, at the University of California Riverside, the average student at a four-year college in 1961 studied about 24 hours a week. Today’s average student hits the books for just 14 hours.”

        It’s true that some technological improvements could reduce the time needed for academics (typing versus laptop, getting readings online rather than going back and forth to the library, etc.), BUT there’s also ample reason to suspect that the BA of today is easier to get than the BA of 1961. That suspicion is supported by the fact that more people get BAs now than used to…

        But on the other hand, a circa 1961 degree in whatever they called computer science then would not be as valuable in 2019 as a 2019 computer science degree, even from a so-so institution.


        “In their 2011 book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that half of the students in the study’s sample “had not taken a single course during the prior semester that required more than 20 pages of writing, and one-third hadn’t taken one that required even 40 pages of reading per week.”


  6. I haven’t read the comments, but I do have to say that I’m frequently disappointed when I click through on one of these articles and they are not by you!


    1. 🙂 I’m done with my little hiatus. I need a new topic for the week. I think I might turn my last article about school buildings into an opinion piece. But not many people read that piece. I don’t think many people care that kids are freezing in their classrooms. Which is really sad.


  7. The report in our state was reported with the caveat that only 1% of our students take the test. I don’t understand what this means. Say, is it a sample, like polls, and thus expected to reflect the overall average? Or is it a skewed (voluntary, regional sample) that can’t be reflecting of the whole population?


  8. I think education isn’t a national priority for a lot of reasons, including that it is hard (as Amy describes above). But, I also think it is intimately connecting with child raising and families and thus a difficult political topic.


    1. bj said, “I think education isn’t a national priority for a lot of reasons, including that it is hard (as Amy describes above). But, I also think it is intimately connecting with child raising and families and thus a difficult political topic.”

      I think those two issues are pretty tightly intertwined.

      A big part of the problem is that there is (unavoidably) no one entity that is responsible for a particular child’s educational outcomes. There are a lot of different entities involved (federal, state, local school board, courts, superintendent, principal, teachers, aides, kid, home, peer group, voters, textbook publishers, schools of education, etc.). Even taking it to the most simplified and schematic level, you still have a) the kid b) school and c) home, so if things aren’t going well, each corner of that triangle always has at least two other entities to blame–and in the real world, there are actually a lot more players to blame. Nobody ever has to take responsibility or be accountable for educational failure unless they choose to do so. For example, if I wanted to, I could say, “YOU PEOPLE HAVE MY KID FOR 7.5 HOURS A DAY AND WE ARE DOING ALL ASSIGNED HOMEWORK AT HOME. WHY ISN’T SHE READING WELL ENOUGH?” I confess that it does cross my mind, but I keep on plugging on with the home reading practice…


  9. I look at that data differently. It seems like if over 30 years, data is relatively stable – that systems are working as designed.

    Our education system is set up to be a system of winners and losers, and no system which picks winners and losers wants too many winners. I don’t think it was ever designed to ensure literacy. I also think that the very system is set up to not only pick winners and losers but also assign blame if anyone stops to ask, “Why aren’t more children literate?”. That was your response in this blog post…what had gone wrong to make so few literate? Was it the students? The parents? The teachers? But the system itself wasn’t really challenged. If it is the fault of the students, or the parents, or the teachers…well then the systems doesn’t need to be challenged or overhauled.

    At no point did you wonder (in this post) why we have the very system we have if literacy is the goal. Literacy is clearly not the goal of the system, or it would have been massively overhauled. And yet, education is very much the same as it ever was.

    As a whole, our education system tracks children at an exceptionally young age. We start the winner/loser picks early and most of the educational system is set up to ensure that those picked early will continue to maintain and even expand their educational advantages. Those left behind by the culling of tracking need to have incredible advocates to have even a fighting chance of getting educated through the current system (your stories of Ian’s experiences prove this out, especially since you have found your experience to mimic ever other special ed family’s). Tracking doesn’t correlate to increased literacy. And yet, it is ubiquitous.

    The system is set up to provide resources for some, not all. To triage those chosen and to let those who are more expensive, more time consuming, and even just less likely to complain fall by the wayside. It shouldn’t be a surprise when the system set up to withhold extra resources (if needed) works as it does.


    1. Plus, there are some areas where there are no resources for education and there isn’t a winner-track in that area. There’s an entire school district just down the road where the median household income is less than $20,000 and the schools were failing basically everybody. This went on for years before they closed the high school and sent them to somewhere with actual resources. The elementary school is still running.


  10. I think BJ has it—education just isn’t a priority in our culture. We don’t invest in it and it shows. Every member of The Jersey Shore is a millionaire and lots of teachers struggle to make ends meet. And it’s not just the money—being a teacher doesn’t carry a lot of respect, and those of us who excelled at school can also attest that being smart didn’t make you popular, quite the reverse actually.


  11. The concern about sending these students off to college unprepared is one I share, and it’s worse now that so many universities are struggling to keep enrollment steady. My regional state university has decided to become test-optional for students with GPAs above 3.3 – which means we will now admit some with ACT scores of 14 or 15 (lowest 20 percentile; and in our state everyone takes this test). Supposedly the ACT is not predictive of college retention. When some colleagues and I raised concerns about this – because perhaps someone who gets scores like this really can’t read or do math, despite diligent enough work to keep their grades up – we were accused by the provost of not wanting to “give students opportunities.” I’m afraid the admin is most concerned with giving students opportunities to pay us tuition and get our enrollment numbers up.

    Maybe this will be a good move, and of course I’d rather have students with a track record of working hard and showing up, which is (in some school systems) what gets you a high GPA. But it’s like that question: if two kids ran the bases with the same time, which one would you put on your baseball team, the one who has great form or the one with terrible form? And the answer is, the one with terrible form, because their time might improve as they become better trained or more disciplined. I hope I’m wrong and we don’t end up with a lot of students who work hard but can’t pass beyond remedial math or English.


    1. If it’s a state school with reasonable tuition, I don’t see the problem. UNL was required by law to take everybody with a ‘C’ average from a Nebraska high school who applied. What this meant was that very large numbers of people came in a flunked out. Mostly, this was because of drinking, but some tried their hearts out, including my freshman year roommate who was clearly incapable of doing college level work*. Still, he was only out $3,000 tuition plus living expenses.

      * He read less than a page a minute while reading a textbook with lots of pictures. I know because he asked me if I was skimming a book when I was reading for detail and then I started to pay attention to how often he turned the page.


  12. “only” out $3000? (Here it’s $5k/semester, plus housing/etc.) Do you know how much that means to someone in certain economic situations? And for nothing but an enormous sense of failure – getting energized to move away from home, going through all of the difficulties involved with that (I have two freshmen who can barely function, and I think there are more). And for what: so we can pretend we’re giving students a chance when we know they almost certainly will not benefit from it?


    1. I get that is a real chunk of money, but it isn’t like the payments will force them to delay life for 20 years. Also, I don’t understand how it is politically possible to say you can’t try when there is a huge subsidy. I think the high school teachers should have steered him somewhere else, but I have no idea if that happened and failed or they didn’t try. He eventually became an exterminator, which I know only because of my parents having a bad encounter with carpenter ants. We didn’t keep in touch, so I haven’t seen him since 1990. Plus, I know a couple of people who got in only because of open admissions and graduated.


      1. Open admission has definite pros and cons. My dad talk for 35 years at a city college that went from being an elite college to open admission over night in the early 1970s. As a professor, in 1969, he had taught students who were so smart that he would study ever day before class to stay one step ahead of the students. A couple of years later, he had students who would stretch out on the floor and take a nap DURING class.

        Open admission did help out kids who were smart, but had gotten a crappy K-12 education. They worked hard and made up for deficits. But there were a whole lot that never finished. Now, the debt load of kids who attend college but don’t finish is really bad. Attending college is a risk.


  13. Most drop out of college; others major in things like Leisure Studies or Sports Management and then can’t find a proper job after graduation.

    The majors, “Physical fitness, parks, recreation, and leisure,” are earning more money than those who majored in Sociology, “Education, other,” History, English language and literature, Elementary education, General education, Psychology, Fine arts, Liberal arts and humanities, or Social work and human services.

    The “Physical fitness, parks, recreation and leisure” majors are more likely to be employed than the graduates who majored in Liberal arts and humanities, Commercial art and graphic design, Economics, Fine arts, Mathematics, Mechanical engineering, Sociology, History, “Engineering, other,” or Physical sciences.

    Majoring in the traditional liberal arts is much more risky than majoring in Sports Management, even if the students can read. Perhaps students are reflecting our culture’s lack of appreciation for literate culture.


    1. Cranberry,


      I wonder if there are regional differences, though?

      Also, what if “physical fitness, parks, recreation, and leisure” majors are attracting top tier college athletes? The high employability and high income may be a bit of a mirage if the benefits accrue primarily to people with a nice jump shot.

      Dave S. had a story about this, I believe, involving a statistical blip in the stats for art history majors.


      1. The study I linked to did not give absolute numbers. This chart does:

        It’s interesting to observe the relative popularity (and lack thereof) of different majors, as the overall number of degree recipients increases from 839,730 to 1,920,718.

        From 1971 to 2016, the number of degrees conferred in PFPRL (to coin a phrase) jumped from 1,621 to more than 50,000. That’s much too large to be a blip. And really, think of all the organized sports leagues that have popped up, up to and including esports. All those athletic trainers, summer program administrators, coaches, etc. come from somewhere.

        In comparison, Social Sciences and History is effectively flat, from 155K to 161K. Mathematics is also flat, although the math majors of the past may be today’s Computer Science and Engineering majors. Education has had a huge drop, from 176K to 87K. That likely reflects the requirement by many states that a “highly qualified” teacher have a degree in a particular field.


      2. I’m the last person in any crowd to know anything about sports, but it’s a huge, growing industry. I tend to think that many students and families may be making rational choices about their future careers. The college degree itself is changing; many more students seem to be choosing career-oriented paths, rather than the traditional, impractical BA.

        When a degree is expensive, people make rational choices.

        And they’re not wrong. Many, many large companies have HR departments. Those HR departments are now aided by computer programs. That means the kid who majored in Retail Management is much more likely to get an interview than a history major, even if the people who ultimately do the hiring want people who can write a coherent essay.


      3. Cranberry said,

        “I tend to think that many students and families may be making rational choices about their future careers. The college degree itself is changing; many more students seem to be choosing career-oriented paths, rather than the traditional, impractical BA.”

        I would personally want to make sure that my kid did a fair amount of business courses in combination with the sports and leisure degree, if it’s not a significant part of the major.

        “And they’re not wrong. Many, many large companies have HR departments. Those HR departments are now aided by computer programs. That means the kid who majored in Retail Management is much more likely to get an interview than a history major, even if the people who ultimately do the hiring want people who can write a coherent essay.”

        That is a fair point.


  14. Paul Tough’s book has references to stats on more “open” admissions policies and the role they play in the “years that matter most” (the title of the book, a reference to the concept that college is vital for economic mobility but also not doing a good job of providing it to the lower economic rungs of our society).

    He references Trinity college, where he says the students with lower test scores + high GPAs out perform those with high test scores + lower GPAs (the two types of mismatches).

    He also profiles the interventions at UT Austin to serve the students in the high GPA/lower scores category who enter the school through their 10% (now 7%) rule that guarantees admission to all the students in the top 7% of their HS classes.

    It’s an interesting listen — I am not entirely convinced, but there are success stories. Each school he profiles, Princeton, Trinity, UT Austin, needs to change to accommodate the new students, but when it does, the schools do better as an engines of opportunity.


    1. bj, did you listen to the audiobook, rather than read the text?

      I ask because some of my book group friends have mentioned using audiobooks. The growing popularity of audiobooks would, of course, cut into the number of adults “modeling” reading.


    2. Yes, I listened to the book as an audiobook, while driving (and walking). We are well past the needing to model reading stage around here. But, I do wonder about the way that technology changes reading. I do a lot of newspaper/blog/online reading and, when I do read books electronically my experience is different.

      And, one thing I noted particularly about the Tough book is that it does cite statistics, and if I read it in print, I would follow those stats more specifically. Since I listened, verifying exactly what a statistic was (even, say, whether it was about UT Austin or UC Berkeley) is hard enough that I am less likely to do it.


  15. Technology likely plays a role. Did you know (I didn’t, until I searched) that the 2019 was administered on tablets?

    Between January – March of 2019, students who participated in NAEP were assessed in mathematics, reading, and science. Most students took the assessment on tablets, while a small subset of students took paper-and-pencil versions to help NAEP evaluate any differences in student performance between the two types of administration. Each student took NAEP in one format and one subject only. Results will be released at the national, state, and TUDA levels for the mathematics and reading assessments at grades 4 and 8. National results will be released for the science assessment at grades 4, 8, and 12 and the mathematics and reading assessments at grade 12.

    The 74 mentions 2 states where scores rose. It would be interesting if they happened to be paper and pencil sites, wouldn’t it?

    First thought: reading on a tablet is different than reading on paper. You have to scroll back to answer questions. It’s not possible to look at the question and the passage at the same time. (correct me if I’m wrong.) 8th graders would presumably have more complicated questions to ask. It’s possible the same students would have scored better, had they been given paper and pencil tests.

    Second thought: tablet-based tests (presumably) make it impossible for teachers to read the exam before it’s administered. Thus, if teachers are proctoring the test, they aren’t able to give hints to their class. Again, presumably, test question sequence could be changed, making it impossible to correct obvious errors after the test has been administered. (Note that while the NAEP is a low-stakes test, districts have been caught cheating on paper and pencil tests before.)

    Third thought: a tablet-based test could be administered at any time, couldn’t it? Thus, if a student is absent on testing day, he could take it when he returns. The old game of the weakest students not being present during the test is thus nullified. Again, the NAEP is a low-stakes test, so it’s not likely. However, the fall in the lowest scores is explained if it’s a different set of lowest performers, i.e., those who would be at home during paper and pencil tests.

    And then again, New technologies are improving NAEP’s ability to offer accommodations to increase participation and provide universal access to students of all learning backgrounds, including students with disabilities and English language learners. In a digital environment, what used to be an accommodation for paper-based testing becomes a seamless part of universal design, available to all students. That means that things like adjusting font size, having test questions read aloud in English (text-to-speech), use of higher contrast to improve readability, and using a highlighter tool are available to all students during the assessment.

    So, whereas a teacher used to read to a student aloud (and maybe give hints), now a student can opt to have test questions read to herself, without the teacher’s involvement? Which could explain the drop for some of the lowest students.


  16. Cranberry said, “Did you know (I didn’t, until I searched) that the 2019 was administered on tablets?”


    Do they get scrap paper for the math?

    “Second thought: tablet-based tests (presumably) make it impossible for teachers to read the exam before it’s administered. Thus, if teachers are proctoring the test, they aren’t able to give hints to their class.”

    Those are very fair points. In fact, your entire post makes very interesting points.

    I would also be concerned about how familiar students were with the tablet testing apparatus/capabilities before they started taking the test.


    1. A core point is that ANY time you change a test, scores fall. Changing from paper and pencil to tablet-based testing would qualify. Thus, the only fair comparison would be tablet-based test to tablet-based test. This decrease in scores is not a reason to panic, in my estimation. The NAEP test was apparently stable from the beginning. It also is administered on a sampling basis. No child sits the entire test. There are many details at the NAEP website. Truly fascinating. However, changing to a computer-based model is changing the test.

      I’m not a fan of the Common Core. I am not a fan of centralizing control on high. Why in the world was one man, David Coleman, put in charge of not only writing the Common Core, but also the College Board?

      There are people who love the idea of a common curriculum, but those materials, perforce, must concentrate on the (perceived) national norm. In one stroke, NCLB and Common Core got rid of all teachers’ favorite materials. The stuff they used to plug the holes in whatever curriculum their schools used. There was also an outflow of families who did not like the new materials, for whatever reason. Note the latest results cover public schools, not all schools. People who are critical of constant test prep don’t necessarily have stupid children. It would have been interesting to see how students in private schools fared.

      Sandra Stotsky has long been very critical of the Common Core, especially in reading, her specialty. These test results may prove her right. And I would argue that banning fiction and novels from the classroom may well have had terrible effects for reading skills.


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