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Education Reporter

2000 NAEP Reading Scores In
Best-worst students farther apart
WASHINGTON, DC _ Fourth graders are no better readers today than they were in 1992, with the gap between the highest and lowest performers growing wider. These are the results released in April by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) for the 2000 4th-grade reading test.

The NAEP results show that, while students in the top 10% posted a modest gain of three points compared to 1992 - from 261 to 264 - those in the bottom 10% dropped seven points, from 170 to 163. There was no change in reading proficiency for the largest proportion of students, who averaged 217 on NAEP's 500-point scale. The report further reveals that more than one-fourth of all white 4th graders cannot read at a basic level, with 63% of African-American and 58% of Hispanic students unable to do so.

In an April 11 interview with Education Week, the acting commissioner of statistics for the Department of Education, Gary W. Phillips, admitted: "Reading achievement has been very stubborn. On the average, there has been no improvement in the reading skills for 4th graders across the nation."

For many, these findings are hardly surprising. Despite the congressionally-mandated National Reading Panel's conclusion that, to be effective, reading instruction must include phonics (See Education Reporter, July 2000), whole language instruction is widely reported to be alive and well. The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation complained in a December 2000 report entitled "Whole Language Lives On: The Illusion of 'Balanced' Reading Instruction," that "although most state education agencies, school districts and federal agencies claim to embrace 'balanced' reading instruction - implying that worthy ideas and practices from both whole language and code emphasis for phonics-based approaches have been successfully integrated - many who pledge allegiance to balanced reading continue to misunderstand reading development and to deliver poorly conceived, ineffective instruction." The report's author, Louisa Cook Moats, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Intervention Project, declared that attempts to combine whole language and phonics "is neither possible nor desirable."

Some observers say the marriage of whole language and phonics allows the worst teaching practices to continue. School Reform News (February 2001) reported that whole language is even being packaged as phonics in textbooks such as Month-by-Month Phonics for First Grade: Systematic, Multilevel Instruction, by Patricia Cunningham and Dorothy Hall. SRN noted that, despite the book's title, the authors urge teachers to begin reading instruction with sight words instead of explicit, systematic phonics. By the second month, students are taught - not just encouraged - to use the whole language technique of guessing at words based on context. (Month-by-Month Phonics was reportedly sent to every kindergarten, first- and second-grade teacher in Illinois as part of a statewide reading initiative.)

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