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Reading Gains Slowing, Study Says

A No Child Left Behind report's author says that states inflate progress. California's gap between state and federal scores is among the smallest.

June 30, 2006|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

The pace of improvement in the reading abilities of elementary school students appears to have slowed in a number of states since enactment of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, a study by researchers at UC Berkeley says.

The report, scheduled for release Wednesday, also finds that the goal of the federal education initiative -- to ensure that all students are proficient in core subject areas -- has been muddied by wide disparities in the definition of "proficient."

A spokesman for the federal Department of Education called the study "flawed and misleading."

The report echoes the results of an analysis this month by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. That study found that No Child Left Behind had not led to gains in math or reading achievement, nor had it achieved another major goal: reducing the gaps in achievement among racial and economic groups.

Since enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2002, "a lot of governors and a lot of state school chiefs have celebrated and claimed significant progress in terms of reading and math achievement," said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at Berkeley and lead author of the new report.

But, he said, "in many cases -- including in California -- state officials seem to be exaggerating progress that has been made in children's basic reading skills."

For instance, though 80% of the fourth-graders in Texas are considered proficient readers according to state tests, only about 30% earn that ranking in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is the federal benchmark. The gap in math scores is smaller, but still vast -- over 80% score proficient on state tests, but only about half that many on national tests.

In Massachusetts, by contrast, the state figures have consistently been within 10 percentage points of the national test scores in math and reading.

Of the 12 states included in the study, California had one of the smallest gaps between state and federal test scores. In an interview Thursday, Fuller praised California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell for being "courageous in setting that bar quite high."

California was also unusual in that its fourth-graders had improved their reading scores on the national assessment at a greater rate since 2002 than in the decade before. Most of the states examined by Fuller's group showed a slowdown in reading gains after passage of the act, the centerpiece of President Bush's education policy.

Math scores have tended to improve at a quicker pace since 2002.

Rick Miller, a spokesman for O'Connell, said California might simply be ahead of other states because it adopted a test-based system of accountability before No Child Left Behind.

Miller said it was premature to say the federal program was not working.

The Harvard study suggested that the act was not accomplishing its goals. A summary of the study concluded that "the national average achievement remains flat in reading and grows at the same pace in math after NCLB than before." Like the Berkeley report, it based its conclusions on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Kevin Sullivan, the Department of Education spokesman, acknowledged the discrepancy between federal and state test results, but said that should ultimately lead to states raising their standards. "The fact that state scores have risen more quickly than NAEP scores does nothing to diminish the gains we have seen on both state and NAEP scores," he said in an e-mail.

Sullivan said that Fuller's group, Policy Analysis for California Education, "has a track record of putting out flawed and misleading information about No Child Left Behind."

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