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State's Pupils Among Worst in Reading Test


WASHINGTON — Fourth-graders in California public schools are neck and neck with their counterparts in Mississippi for the dubious distinction as the worst readers in the country, according to results of a national test released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Education.

The findings were even worse among certain ethnic and economic segments of the state. Latinos, blacks and disadvantaged urban fourth-graders in California trailed their counterparts in the other 40 states that participated in the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

In Sacramento, state education officials tried to temper the bad news by releasing other national statistics showing California's public high school students at the top among those who take advanced-placement tests for college.

Nearly 21% of the state's high school students received passing marks on the exams in June, compared to the national average of 15%, according to state officials. Through the tests, administered by the College Board in New York, students are able to earn credits or waive beginning university courses in 16 subjects, ranging from physics to English.

Taken together, the two tests revealed a widening split between the educational levels of the general population and of students intent on attending college. They suggest that although public schools are having greater difficulty providing a basic education to California youngsters, public high schools are of great help to students planning to attend college.

William D. Dawson, acting superintendent of public instruction for California, attributed the dismal reading scores to California public schools' higher percentage of disadvantaged urban children and pupils who speak limited English. Nationally, 9.9% of the students who took the test were disadvantaged; 22.4% in California's test sample were disadvantaged.

"We still have a very large number of kids who do extremely well on the tests," Dawson said, "but we have a growing number of kids starting school in poverty, from single-parent families, from families where both parents are working and it's a tougher educational task in the early years."

Lawrence Feinberg, assistant director of the National Assessment Governing Board, said that California's poor performance on the reading tests cannot be attributed solely to the state's large immigrant population. He noted that Anglo fourth-graders at public schools in California also scored in the bottom fifth among participating states.

States also were given the option of excluding students from the test if their English proficiency was not adequate, and California excluded 11% of the children chosen to take the test, a far larger percentage than any other state. The national average for excluding students with low English proficiency was 3%.

The only group of California fourth-graders whose scores were near the national average were those from economically well-off urban areas.

The national study found that children who watched six hours or more of television each day were in the "red zone" on the reading test, scoring the lowest. Fourth-graders who watched three hours or less scored the best.

State officials said one factor that may have an impact on students' performance is the amount of money spent on schools. California ranks 40th in the nation, at $4,569 per student. The national average is $5,686 and Mississippi ranks 49th, at $3,504, according to estimates by the U.S. Department of Education.

But spending is not a firm indicator. Utah ranks last in spending at $3,240 per pupil but reading proficiency was ranked among the highest.

Although the results for California's fourth-graders were particularly disturbing, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said that the scores for the whole country are extremely troubling.

More than two-thirds of America's fourth- and eighth-graders and high school seniors are not proficient readers, according to the study, and only 2% to 4% of students at any grade level reached the advanced level.

"As a nation, America will certainly go from great to second-rate if our children cannot read well enough," Riley said.

The study found that 25% of fourth-graders, 28% of eighth-graders and 37% of high school seniors have met or exceeded the "proficient" level, and 59% of the fourth-graders, 69% of eighth-graders and 75% of high school seniors can read at least at the basic level for their grades, which indicates at least partial mastery of the knowledge and skills needed for proficient work at each grade.

Researchers found that reading skills could be improved with the use of challenging instruction based in literature and with parental involvement.

"Parents need to supervise their children's homework and know when to turn off the tube," Riley said.

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