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To succeed in post-secondary education or employment, students must emerge from high school possessing high levels of literacy skills that enable them to construct meaning from a variety of texts and convey that meaning to others. Recent reform efforts have yielded positive results in improving reading achievement for the nation’s children in the primary grades. However, many children are not moving beyond basic decoding skills, even as they advance to the fourth grade and classes in history, mathematics, and science.

To focus national attention on the problem of adolescent literacy, Carnegie Corporation started a new initiative — Advancing Adolescent Literacy: Reading to Learn — the aim of which is to promote policy practice and research in the field of adolescent literacy, which encompasses reading and writing in grades 4 through 12. As a first step in its new initiative Carnegie Corporation asked the RAND Corporation to convene a small study group for one year to lay the foundation for the work of a larger Advisory Council. Carnegie also asked RAND to produce a comprehensive, quantitative survey of the state of adolescent reading and writing achievement in the United States.

RAND gathered information from the 50 states and the District of Columbia (DC) on state assessment systems and the performance of students in reading, English language arts, and writing on state assessments. To examine the relative performance of students against national standards, the RAND team also used data from the 2003 state National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in reading and the 2002 state NAEP in writing.

Achieving State and National Literacy Goals, a Long Uphill Road: A Report to Carnegie Corporation of New York documents the results of this research and provides a portrait of the state of adolescent literacy as measured by these national and state assessments. The appendices contain individual state write-ups for the 50 states and the District of Columbia (DC) that describe the assessment systems; the content, format, and performance levels of reading, writing, and English/language arts assessments between 4th and 12th grades; and student performance on those assessments.

It is clear that while states are operating under a common mandate for proficiency, there are large differences in the rigor of the assessment and states’ definitions of proficiency, leading to quite disparate outcomes. Compare, for instance, South Carolina, Missouri, North Carolina, and Texas. At the 8th grade level, 21 percent of students in South Carolina and 33 percent of students in Missouri passed the state assessment, compared with 86-87 percent of 8th-graders in North Carolina and Texas. However, when one looks at the 8th-grade NAEP scores, 24 percent of students in South Carolina and 34 percent of students in Missouri scored at the proficient level, compared with 26 percent of students in Texas and 29 percent of students in North Carolina. Clearly, even if each state were to meet its 100-percent-proficiency goal for reading, students in those states would likely have quite disparate abilities, knowledge, and skills.

Overall, the data show that our nation faces a tremendous challenge to raise the literacy skills of its adolescents. Simply mandating standards and assessments is not going to guarantee success. Unless we, as a nation, are prepared to focus attention and resources on this issue, our schools are likely to continue producing students who lack skills and are ill-prepared to deal with the demands of post-secondary education and the workplace. Policymakers, schools, and teachers need to step up and accept the “orphaned responsibility” of teaching students to read to learn. The costs of inattention are very high, both in personal and economic terms.

This report should be of interest to educational researchers and education policymakers at the national, state, and local levels who are working to improve educational opportunities and learning for all students.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    State and National Assessments of Adolescent Literacy

  • Chapter Three

    The Current State of Adolescent Literacy Achievement: Results from State Assessments

  • Chapter Four

    The Current State of Adolescent Literacy Achievement: Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress

  • Chapter Five

    The Current State of Adolescent Literacy Achievement: Reconciling Results from State and National Assessments

  • Chapter Six

    Conclusions and Policy Implications

The research described in this report was conducted within RAND Education for Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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