RAND Study Says 50-State Assessment of Student Reading Shows Students in Grades 4-12 Lag Behind Federal Goals

Media Resources

RAND Office of Media Relations

(703) 413-1100, ext. 5117
(310) 451-6913

December 16, 2004

Reading achievement among the nation's students in grades 4-12 lags significantly behind federal goals, raising questions about whether schools can meet federal requirements that all students be “proficient” readers by 2014, according to a RAND Corporation report issued today.

An assessment of student literacy achievement compiled by researchers from RAND Education found that in several states fewer than half the students tested meet state reading proficiency standards set for NCLB.

The RAND report is the first to compile details about reading and writing assessments and student achievement on those assessments from all 50 states and Washington, D.C in one comprehensive document.

“This report pulls together a lot of publicly available information and sets it in the context of adolescent literacy,” said Jennifer McCombs, a RAND policy analyst who is the lead author of the report. “We hope it will be a valuable resource to policymakers and researchers who are interested in this issue.”

The nation's elementary and secondary school landscape shifted two years ago with passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The law requires that all students be proficient in reading and math based on state-adopted standards by 2014.

The law also requires states to test all children annually in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school by 2005-06. Additional testing in science is required in later years. States are also required to participate in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a federal test given to some students each year that is considered to have a high standard for reading proficiency.

Researchers reported state achievement test results in 2003 from as many states as available and from the District of Columbia, focusing on results among students in grades 4-12. In addition, the RAND study includes student achievement information from the NAEP.

Among the findings reported by the researchers are:

  • Proficiency rates on state assessments varied widely. Pass rates for elementary students (generally fourth graders) ranged from a low of 28 percent in the District of Columbia to a high of 90 percent in Massachusetts.
  • Pass rates for middle school students ranged from 21 percent in South Carolina to 94 percent in Massachusetts. Twelve jurisdictions had pass rates below 50 percent for middle school students — Arkansas, California, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Missouri, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming.
  • Pass rates on high school reading tests not required for graduation ranged from 13 percent in the District of Columbia to 87 percent in Colorado.
  • On the NAEP, 8th grade proficiency rates ranged from 10 percent in the District of Columbia to 43 percent in Massachusetts. The rate was similar for 4th grade students.
  • Both the NAEP and state assessments show very large achievement gaps by race/ethnicity and poverty.
  • Not surprisingly, students who have limited English proficiency and special education needs perform at the lowest levels.

“A large number of American adolescents are struggling readers and results from achievement tests suggest much needs to be done to bring them all up to the proficient level by 2014,” McCombs said. “We need to make a national commitment to teach children to ‘read to learn’ in order for them to be successful later in their lives.”

The RAND report was compiled for the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which has launched an initiative called “Advancing Literacy” that is designed to improve adolescent literacy through research, practice, and policy. Carnegie's newly-established Advisory Council on Advancing Literacy will be examining literacy policy and research and making recommendations to improve the literacy achievement of the nation's adolescents.

“In order to bridge these gaps a national K-12 literacy policy is necessary,” said Andrés Henríquez, Carnegie Corporation program officer for the Advancing Literacy initiative. “We should build on the momentum of interest and investments we've made in early reading. This will be particularly important in the next several years as No Child Left Behind is extended into the high schools — given these data it is hard to imagine dropout rates improving any time soon.”

RAND researchers found there often is a significant difference between what a state deems to be proficient for purposes of NCLB and how its students score on the federal assessment. In most cases, student proficiency rates were higher on state tests than on the national exam.

In Colorado, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, the percentage of 8th grade students scoring at the proficient level was 50 points or more lower on federal assessments than on state assessments. In one state — South Carolina — the proficiency rate on the NAEP was slightly lower than it was on the state assessment.

“The state NAEP results highlight that there is a big difference among states in what they consider ‘proficient’ for purposes of NCLB,” McCombs said. “Even if each state were to meet its 100 percent proficiency goal for reading, students across states would likely have quite disparate abilities, knowledge, and skills.”

While literacy instruction is a focus of instruction in the primary grades, it has become an “orphaned” responsibility for students as they approach and reach adolescence, according to the report.

“The job market places a premium on workers who have high-level literacy skills,” McCombs said. “We are doing a disservice to our young people if we prepare them for anything less.” Other authors of the report are: Sheila Kirby, Heather Barney and Hilary Darilek, all of RAND; and Scarlett Magee, a former RAND researcher.

RAND Education conducts research and analysis on a variety of topics, including school reform, educational assessment and accountability, and trends among teachers and teacher training.

Printed copies of “Achieving State and National Literacy Goals, a Long Uphill Road: A Report to Carnegie Corporation of New York,” (ISBN: 0-8330-3710-2) can be ordered from RAND's Distribution Services (order@rand.org or call toll-free in the United States 1-877-584-8642).

About the RAND Corporation
The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit research organization providing objective analysis and effective solutions that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors around the world.

Learn More

Blue arrowRead the Full Document
Blue arrowRAND Education
Blue arrowE-mail sign up