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Radical Eyes for Equity: The Ignored Truth About Reading Proficiency in the US

Like dozens of stories in mainstream media, Marion Blank declared in Scientific American, “Biennial testing through NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] consistently shows that two thirds of U.S. children are unable to read with proficiency.”

Reading proficiency crisis has been at the forefront of media coverage and state-level policy for over a decade now. However, the basic claim—2/3 of children not at grade-level proficiency—is misleading at best and false at worst.

The misunderstanding lies in NAEP achievement levels. NAEP warns, “It should be noted that the NAEP Proficient achievement level does not represent grade level proficiency as determined by other assessment standards.”

Tom Loveless calls this the “NAEP proficiency myth,” adding Basic represents grade-level proficiency, and thus, 2/3 of students in the US are reading at grade level or above.

Further, Blank begins the article touting achievement in Mississippi, focusing on impressive gains in NAEP reading. The media embracing of the Mississippi “miracle” further compounds the misinformation about both a reading crisis and one state’s ability to beat the odds.

To understand the US is not experiencing a reading crisis and MS is not a “miracle” template for reading reform, we must consider the recent call for Vermont to mimic MS.

On the 2022 NAEP reading test, VT has 62% of students at or above grade level proficiency (grade 4), compared to MS with 63%. Yes, this is an impressive similarity for MS with a state experiencing a significantly higher rate of poverty and minority students.

But that is not the whole story.

States such as MS and especially FL have very impressive grade 4 NAEP scores that plummet by grade 8: Compare VT (73% grade-level proficient and above) with MS (63%) and FL (69%), notably resulting in VT in the top 6 states in the US, MS in the bottom four, and FL ranking in the middle. Researchers have noted that FL students experience some the greatest drops in achievement from grade 4 to 8, in fact.

Another ignored fact is that MS, like FL, likely achieves the test score bump from extreme levels of grade retention—impacting from about 9,000 – 12,000 students per year across grades K through 3. The MS “miracle” is a test data “mirage.”

But the most important ignored truth about reading in the US can be found in the publicly funded schools run by the Department of Defense (DoDEA)—DoDEA schools NAEP outcomes include in 2022 (grade 4) 80% and (grade 8) 90% at or above grade-level proficient.

Now here is the most ignored truth about reading achievement. DoDEA schools are not distinct from traditional public schools because of reading instruction or reading programs, but as Mervosh reports:

How does the military do it? In large part by operating a school system that is insulated from many of the problems plaguing American education….

For starters, families have access to housing and health care through the military, and at least one parent has a job….

[T]eachers are also well paid, supported by a Pentagon budget that allocates $3 billion to its schools each year, far more than comparably sized school districts.

Who Runs the Best U.S. Schools? It May Be the Defense Department.

The most important and ignored truth about reading proficiency in the US is that reading is a marker for socioeconomic inequity in both our society and our schools. There is no crisis and there are no miracles. But as DoDEA schools demonstrate, if we have the political will, we can and should better serve all our children as developing readers and citizens.


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P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He...