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Data Shows Literacy Lag

New government figures show that more than two-thirds of fourth-graders tested in a national survey can't read proficiently, continuing an eight-year trend that shows no substantial sign of improvement. In fact, the gaps between the best and worst readers seem to be widening slightly.

The findings prompted a leading child development expert on Friday to say that well-researched methods to teach reading seem to have eluded many teachers and many of the colleges that train them.

"The frustration is, what we know is not being implemented in practice," said Reid Lyon of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Lyon's comments came as reading results for the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as "the nation's report card," were released. They show that fourth-graders' average scores in a 500-point test came in at 217 last year identical to the results in 1998 and 1992. The scores were slightly better than in 1994, when the average student scored 214.

"The overall status of fourth-grade reading was stagnant in the 1990s," said Marilyn Whirry, a high school English teacher in Manhattan Beach, Calif., who is also a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which develops and reviews the tests.

The scores show that 32 percent of fourth-graders were proficient or better in reading. That's up slightly from 1992, when 29 percent were proficient.

But while students in the top 10 percent increased their average score a bit from 261 to 264 the average scores of readers in the bottom 10 percent dropped from 170 to 163.

Private school pupils fared slightly better than those in public schools. Among public school children, the average score was 215; for nonpublic schools, the average was 234.

"These results are simply not good enough, not in America," said Education Secretary Rod Paige. He said the results show that the nation's schools would benefit from President Bush's proposed $5 billion reading plan, which would try to get every pupil reading by the end of third grade.

He also said the Head Start program should return to focusing on teaching children pre-reading skills.

The tests were given to about 8,000 students from all parts of the nation.

Lyon said colleges of education need to implement "substantial changes in teacher preparation," committing to giving teachers proven strategies for helping children to read.

Lyon suggested a "moratorium" against unproven reading instruction methods, which he said change from year to year and hurt children's progress.

The results released Friday also showed that:

  • Low-income students accounted for 66 percent of the poorest readers; they represented 9 percent of the best readers.

  • Students who said they had attended the same school for the past two years comprised 87 percent of the best readers, but 48 percent of the pooret readers.

  • White students' average scores remained level at 226, compared to 225 in 1992.

  • Black students' average scores were 193, the same as 1992.

  • Hispanic students' average scores dropped slightly, from 201 to 197.

  • While achievement gaps between ethnic groups haven't grown, gaps within each ethnic group's scores have gotten wider, the results showed.

    The National Education Goals Panel, a group of state governors, members of Congress and state legislators, was scheduled on Monday to release a seven-year study of fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores with similar results, including a growing gap between the best and worst performers.

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