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Is the U.S. educational system beginning to decay?
I don’t like to be alarmist, or give too much weight to any one test result, but last week’s release of 2016 reading test scores around the world is now the third major proof point that something is awry. The latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) — a reading comprehension test given to fourth graders in 58 countries and regions around the world — showed that U.S. performance is sliding in both absolute and relative terms. American fourth-graders, on average, had worse reading skills than they did five years earlier, in 2011, with scores slipping seven points on a 1,000-point scale. At the same time, other countries leapfrogged ahead of us. The combination meant that the United States slipped from 6th to 15th place in this international ranking. (The U.S. Education Department considers the 2016 score to be a statistical tie for 13th place because it was so close to those of the three countries ranked immediately ahead of it. See adjacent table.)
This follows two other disappointing test results that had largely pointed to problems in math skills. Both fourth- and eighth-grade students posted declines on the math section of the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). (Eighth-graders had done worse in reading, too.) And another international exam, the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed back-to-back deterioration in math performance among American 15-year-olds in 2012 and 2015. Reading scores had stayed steady.
Reading ability among younger children hadn’t been a source of concern. Until now.
“It looks dire on the surface because we see that we are losing ground,” said Jocelyn A. Chadwick, president of the National Council of Teachers of English. “We need to drill down and learn exactly where this is happening: which states, which districts and which schools. The picture is not as dire everywhere in the country as the test scores would suggest. Some of our students can blow the top off of that test. And we need to look at places where good [teaching] practices are occurring.”
Worsening performance by low- and middle-achieving students drove the overall test score decline. Scores of the bottom tenth fell 12 points, the bottom quarter fell nine points and students right in the middle fell seven points. Meanwhile, the scores of higher achieving students were flat, statistically unchanged.
Chadwick said the increase in poverty and the erosion of the middle class, particularly since the 2008 recession, are making it harder to teach reading. “Middle-class parents who pay attention to homework or who ask how their child’s day was, those parents are now working maybe two jobs, or there’s an issue with healthcare,” said Chadwick. In addition, she pointed to the growing numbers of extremely poor students who must learn to read while coping with hunger, homelessness and other upheavals at home.
So many things could have affected student achievement during the five-year period between 2011 and 2016 that it’s impossible to know what the main causes of deterioration are. In addition to an increase in the number of poor students, the funding for schools declined, Common Core standards were introduced, the use of educational software increased, and, in many schools, time spent on test preparation expanded (which often detracts from learning).
NAEP, the national exam given every two years, shows a different picture for fourth-grade reading. During roughly the same 2011 to 2015 time period, fourth-grade reading scores rose slightly, seeming to contradict the international test released last week. But high-performing students drove those gains, and low-achieving students didn’t improve at all. For example, students at the top (90th percentile) gained 2 points. Students at the 10th percentile didn’t budge, remaining well below “basic,” unable to make simple inferences or interpret the meanings of words. Regardless of which test you put more stock in, there’s a growing gap between high-achieving and low-achieving fourth-graders. Regardless of the test, low performers are falling farther behind.
One way to reconcile the contradiction between PIRLS and NAEP is to take a longer historical perspective. “Over the shorter term, there are fluctuations,” said Jack Buckley, a former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics. “But if you look back to 2001, both trends are the same; we’re flat. We’re not moving much in fourth-grade reading.”
Of course, when you look over this longer 15-year time horizon, there isn’t any deterioration to worry about either. Just a distinct lack of progress. “I’m not celebrating stagnation. Don’t get me wrong,” said Buckley, now a senior vice president at the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit research firm. “You could argue, given all the challenges that schools are facing, it’s remarkable that we’ve been able to stay flat.”