Grading today’s education system

Jonathan Krohn Contributor

A few weeks ago, a National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report entitled “The Nation’s Report Card: Reading 2009” was released. The document records the results of reading-abilities tests given to 178,000 fourth graders and 160,000 eighth graders. The results showed that, while a slim group (33 percent) in fourth grade, and 32 percent in eighth grade, scored at or above the “Proficiency Level,” the vast majority of young people in the study, 34 percent in fourth grade, and 43 percent in eighth grade, performed at the “Basic Level.” The study also showed that 26 percent of eighth graders and 34 percent of fourth graders performed below the “Basic Level.”

Obviously, this is not good. And it is especially not good when you realize that the reforms of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) have hardly raised reading scores since the bill’s enactment in then reading scores have gone up a grand total of 2 points on a 500 point scale for fourth graders, and reading scores have not increased at all since 2002 for eighth graders. Such numbers are even more astonishing when you also take into consideration the fact that SINCE 1992—almost two decades—fourth grade reading scores have gone up a mere 4 points the same scale, and eighth grade reading scores have also gone up the same 4 points on the same scale.

At a press conference held to announce the study’s results, Steven Paine, a member of NAEP’s policy-wing—the National Assessment Governing Board—said that the results were “disappointing” because reading education has received a “considerable amount of effort.” He is correct on both counts.

The fact that decade after decade we have poured time, money, and policy theorizing into reading education is readily documented. In fact one such “fix” was released as recently as February of this year by the National Governors Association: but it was just another in the long line of attempts to fix reading education. However, while many of these proposed solutions have had success in the short term, many, if not most, of these intellectual panaceas have had very little critical success in the long run.

We are also hard-pressed for time. Under No Child Left Behind, every student in the country is required to be proficient in reading by the end of the 2013-2014 school year. Of course, as the Nation’s Report Card showed, we are nowhere near the goal of 100 percent reading proficiency, and—contrary to this idea—we are hardly moving towards such a goal. State and local school boards have realized this and, thusly, have moved their level of individual proficiency a bar lower for their own states.

In an NAEP study on state standards in relation to national standards released in October 2009 it was found that the average state standard for fourth grade reading was the equivalent of 199 points on the same 500-point scale (40 percent) used in the NAEP proficiency exams. This puts the state-by-state average proficiency standard 9 points below the 208-point national standard for Basic reading as issued in the NAEP’s reading proficiency exams. Furthermore, while the state-by-state average proficiency standard for eighth graders is 246 points on the 500-point scale (49 percent)—putting it 3 points above the 243-point NAEP Basic level for eighth graders—the number is still 35 points below the national standard for Proficient reading as issued in the NAEP’s reading proficiency exams.

Hence the problem with many of today’s intellectual solutions to America’s reading woes are not that they are wrongheaded, or bad in any way: the real problem with them is that, in many cases, they miss their mark. It is all fine and good to come up with common standards and ideas for all, but the fact of the matter is we must start by raising our expectations of our students on the state and local levels: the places that directly affect our students, especially in the formative years.

Finally, in conjunction with this, we need to make sure that state standards for teachers are also raised. As long as the taxpayer continues to subsidize the school system, we deserve to get our money’s worth. If a teacher instructs students in a manner that is far below the proficiency line, and their scores continue to stay at the same low levels year in and year out, don’t you think that such an incapable teacher needs to be replaced with another or—at the least—have their pay docked a little bit? Absolutely. As the bar is raised for the students, so also the bar must be raised for their teachers.

Mr. Krohn is a speaker, author, columnist, pundit, and policy analyst. He is author of the bestseller Defining Conservatism: The Principles that Will Bring Our Country Back, a former guest contributor to Human Events, and contributor to Newt Gingrich’s American Solutions. (www.jonathankrohn.org)