Reading scores indict education

America’s youth are losing their ability to read, according to the latest round of test results of fourth and eighth-graders.

A decline in reading ability is a threat to a nation’s economic future. The nation’s educational policy makers must try to stop fighting over ideology and begin focusing on programs that effectively teach children to read.

The news comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which reports that tests given in 2019 showed 35 percent of fourth-graders demonstrated proficiency in reading, down from 37 percent in 2017. The test is administered by the National Center for Education Statistics, the research arm of the U.S. Education Department, and the scores have come to be known as the “nation’s report card.”

A similar decline in reading was seen among eighth-graders who declined from 36 percent to 34 percent.

The latest round of scores raises the question of whether America’s educators know what they’re doing. For most states, including all of the Midwest, test scores in 2019 are no better than they were in 2009, although there has been a gradual increase since 1998. At the fourth-grade level in reading, one state scored higher (Mississippi), 17 scored lower (including Ohio), and 34 had no significant change in scores.

At the eighth-grade level, Ohio’s score remained essentially unchanged.

The decline in reading performance and a lack of improvement demonstrated in math proficiency are discouraging. This has occurred even after heightened attention by the federal government with the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001 and its successor, Every Student Succeeds, in 2015.

The gap was supposed to close between the highest performing and the lowest-performing. Instead, the most recent scores show the gap widening somewhat, with students in the bottom 10 percent falling more sharply than those in the top 10 percent.

It cannot be ignored that reading proficiency is stagnant or declining at a time when exposure to the printed page is also declining. With the digital revolution and the rise of the Internet, children see far fewer newspapers and magazines around the house than did children of a previous generation. And the increasing availability of content on television undoubtedly competes successfully with plain old books for the attention of children.

In one of the success stories, the District of Columbia attributed some of its success to the phase-in of universal preschool for 4-year-olds and most 3-year-olds over the last decade.

Preschool is proven to have a positive influence on a child’s readiness to learn when the child gets to kindergarten. Ohio should have a task force working on universal preschool.

In the meantime, Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz is pushing for preschools throughout Toledo, to be funded by a local income tax increase he wants voters to approve in March. He promised such a program in his 2017 campaign.

Educational experts and politicians should quit arguing about teacher pay and the merits of charter schools and instead figure out the practices that work, and require schools to use those practices or stop receiving certification and funding.

We know how important reading is. Children who don’t learn to read are statistically more likely to fall behind, drop out, become involved in the criminal justice system, and experience poverty.

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