DataBank Indicator

Reading Proficiency

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After increasing for nearly a decade, average reading scores among eighth-graders decreased between 2013 and 2015. Progress among fourth-graders has also stalled.

Importance

The ability to read proficiently is a fundamental skill that affects the learning experiences and school performance of children and adolescents. Students who are competent readers, as measured by their performance on reading tests, are more likely to perform well in other subjects, such as math and science.[1],[2] Children who struggle with reading and reading comprehension also often have deficits in spoken language.[3] Students with reading difficulties are much less likely to be academically engaged.[4] Reading achievement predicts the likelihood of graduating from high school[5] and attending college.[6]

Reading skills also influence students’ well-being as adults. Adults with poor literacy skills find it difficult to function in society, because many basic decision-making skills require reading proficiency.[7] People who are not able to fill out an application because of limited reading or writing skills are likely to have difficulty finding a job or accessing social services. Strong reading skills protect against unemployment in early adulthood.[8] Research has confirmed that performance on adult literacy tests helps explain differences in wages.[9] Finally, adults with limited reading abilities are likely to have children with limited reading abilities.[10]

Enjoyment of reading is associated with reading success. In an international study involving 15-year-olds from 14 developed countries, students reported they read daily for pleasure achieved reading scores higher, by the equivalent of one-and-a-half years of schooling, than their peers who did not.[11]

Trends

29_fig1

Trends in reading scores over the past two decades have varied by grade level.

Among eighth-graders, average reading scores rose in the 1990s, and then remained relatively steady between 1998 and 2002. Average scores decreased between 2002 and 2005 (from 264 to 262), then showed nearly a decade of increases (rising to 268 in 2013). In 2015, average scores had decreased back to their 2011 level of 265. (Figure 1)

Fourth-grade reading scores reached a high of 221 in 2007 after rising steadily since the early 1990s, but have increased only slightly since, and were at 223 in 2015. Meanwhile, reading scores for twelfth-grade students declined between 1998 and 2005, from 290 to 286, but increased slightly in 2009 to 288. Since then, twelfth-grade scores have remained steady.  (Figure 1) According to how achievement levels are scored, the latest data show students at each grade-level performing, on average, at the “basic” level—below “proficient” and “advanced.” (See Definition section for further information.)

Note: In 1996, NAEP began a transition to allowing testing accommodations for students with disabilities and students with limited English proficiency. Between 1996 and 2002 two samples (one with, one without accommodations permitted) were used while a new baseline was being established. Beginning in 2002, all NAEP assessments allowed accommodations. Accommodations may include extra time, one-on-one administration, translation of assessments, or the use of bilingual dictionaries and are determined by state and district policies.

Differences by Race and Hispanic Origin[12]

29_fig2At all grade levels, White and Asian/Pacific Islander students have the highest reading scores, followed by Hispanic and American Indian students. Black students have the lowest reading scores. For example, among eighth-graders in 2015, Asian/Pacific Islanders had the highest average scores (280), followed by whites (274), Hispanics and American Indians (253 and 252, respectively), and blacks (248). Patterns were similar at other grade levels, except that among twelfth-graders in 2013 (the latest data available) white and Asian/Pacific Islander students had similar scores. Among fourth-graders in 2015, there was no significant difference between the scores of American Indians and blacks. (Figure 2)

Among fourth-grade students, the reading gaps between white and black, and white and Hispanic, students narrowed between 2003 and 2007, but have since remained steady. (Appendix 1) Among eighth-grade students, there has been no change in the black-white gap in reading scores, but the Hispanic-white gap decreased between 2003 and 2009. (Appendix 2) For twelfth-grade students, the performance gap between whites and blacks increased between 2005 and 2013, while the gap between whites and Hispanics did not change significantly. (Appendix 3)

Differences by Gender

29_fig3Girls have higher reading scores, on average, than boys. In 2015, the gap was seven points in the fourth grade, and nine points in eighth grade. Among twelfth-graders in 2013 (the latest data available), girls also had significantly higher reading scores than boys (by nine points). (Figure 3) In fourth and eighth grades, boys’ and girls’ scores have followed similar trends over the past decade. However, twelfth-grade boys’ scores increased between 2002 and 2013, while girls’ scores remained unchanged. (Appendix 1, Appendix 2, and Appendix 3)

 

Differences by Free/Reduced-Price School Lunch Program Eligibility

At all three grade levels, lower-income students (eligible for free and reduced-price lunches) had lower NAEP reading scores, on average, than students who were not eligible. In 2015, differences were 28 points in the fourth grade, 24 points in the eighth grade, and, in 2013 (the latest data available), 22 points in twelfth grade. (Appendix 1, Appendix 2, and Appendix 3)

Differences by Region

29_fig4In 2015, fourth-graders in the Northeast, on average, had the highest reading scores (228), followed by students in the Midwest (224), South (223), and West (217). Similarly, eighth-graders in the Northeast, on average, had the highest scores (270), followed by those in the Midwest (268), and the South and West (263, each). Among twelfth-graders, those in the Northeast and Midwest had higher average scores (292 and 291, respectively) than those in the West and South (287 and 286, respectively). (Figure 4) None of these average scores were above the “basic” level of achievement. (See Definition section for further information.)

State and Local Estimates

Note: NAEP differs from most state assessments, in that it uses a sampling procedure where only some students are selected to participate, and no student is administered all questions. State-level scores are derived using statistical methods that impute a student’s range of likely scores on the whole test, given their performance on selected items.

International Estimates

International estimates of reading literacy for 4th-grade students are available from the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) assessment, which compares the scores of U.S fourth-graders to their peers in 44 different countries.
International estimates of reading literacy for 15-year-olds are available from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) are available in the Performance of U.S. 15-Year-Old Students in Reading, Mathematics, and Science Literacy in an International Context report.

National Goals

The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in January 2002, requires states to set performance standards for multiple subjects, including reading, and requires that each state measure students’ progress in reading and mathematics every year from grades three to eight, and at least once in grades 10 to 12. Each state is expected to make adequate yearly progress toward meeting standards, and all children are expected to meet or exceed minimum proficiency standards, as defined by the state, within twelve years.

What Works to Make Progress on This Indicator

The U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Science’s What Works Clearinghouse provides reports that evaluate research on beginning reading (for students in grades K–3), and adolescent literacy (for students in grades 4-12), including curricula and instructional strategies. As stated on the Clearinghouse web site, “These curricula and strategies are intended to increase skills in alphabetics, reading fluency, comprehension, and general reading achievement.”

In an international study involving 15-year-olds from 14 developed countries, students whose parents regularly discussed political or social with them scored an average of 16 points higher on a comprehensive reading assessment, controlling for differences in socio-economic background.[13]

Also, see Child Trends’ LINKS database (“Lifecourse Interventions to Nurture Kids Successfully”), for reviews of many rigorously evaluated programs, including the following which have been shown to be effective:

Related Indicators

Definition

Reading proficiency refers to performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Reading Assessments. Scale scores range from 0 to 500, with a standard deviation of 100. In 1996, NAEP started allowing testing accommodations for students with disabilities and for limited English proficient students. Accommodations may include extra time, one-on-one administration, use of magnifying equipment, translation of assessments, or the use of bilingual dictionaries and are determined by state and district policies. Beginning in 2002, all NAEP assessments allow accommodations. Only students currently enrolled in school are assessed.

NAEP also reports scores by achievement levels: Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. Cut-off scale scores for these levels, and descriptions of what students are expected to know and do in reading at each level, at fourth, eighth, and twelfth grades, are available from the Nation’s Report Card website.

Data Source

U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. National Assessment of Educational Progress Reading and Mathematics Assessments (NAEP), 2015, 2013, 2011, 2009, 2007, 2005, 2003, 2000, 1996, 1992, and 1990 Reading Assessments. Accessed through the NAEP Data Explorer at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/naepdata/

Raw Data Source

National Assessment of Educational Progress

http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/

 

Appendix 1 – NAEP Reading Average Scale Scores,3 Grade 4: Selected Years, 1992-2015

1992 1994 1998 1998 2000 2002 2003 2005 2007 2009 2011 2013 2015
No Accommodations Permitted1 Accommodations Permitted1
Total 217 214 217 215 213 219 218 219 221 221 221 222 223
Gender
Male 213 209 214 212 208 215 215 216 218 218 218 219 219
Female 221 220 220 217 219 222 222 222 224 224 225 225 226
Race/Hispanic Origin2
White 224 224 226 225 224 229 229 229 231 230 231 232 232
Black 192 185 193 193 190 199 198 200 203 205 205 206 206
Hispanic 197 188 195 193 190 201 200 203 205 205 206 207 208
Asian/Pacific Islander 216 220 221 215 225 224 226 229 232 235 235 235 239
American Indian 211 214 207 202 204 203 204 202 205 205
Other 219 223 223 225 226 227 227 227
Free/Reduced-Price School Lunch Program Eligibility
Eligible 198 196 193 203 201 203 205 206 207 207 209
Not eligible 227 227 226 230 229 230 232 232 235 236 237
Information not available 227 223 225 226 230 232 233 236 235 237 236
English Language Learner Status
ELL 198 196 193 203 201 203 205 206 207 207 209
Not ELL 227 227 226 230 229 230 232 232 235 236 237
Type of School
Public 215 212 215 213 211 217 216 217 220 220 220 221 221
Nonpublic 232 231 233 232 231 234 235 234 235 234 235
1992 1994 1998 1998 2000 2002 2003 2005 2007 2009 2011 2013 2015
No Accommodations Permitted1 Accommodations Permitted1
Region
Northeast 224 225 228 228 228 227 228
Midwest 222 222 224 223 222 223 224
South 217 218 220 221 221 222 223
West 212 213 214 215 216 217 217
Type of Location4
City 215 216 216 216 218
Suburb 226 225 226 226 227
Town 219 218 218 220 219
Rural 222 222 223 223 224
Percentile Score
10th 170 159 167 163 159 170 169 171 174 175 174 174 174
25th 194 189 193 191 189 196 195 196 199 199 200 200 201
50th 219 219 220 217 218 221 221 221 224 223 224 225 226
75th 242 243 244 242 243 244 244 244 246 245 246 247 248
90th 261 263 263 262 262 263 264 263 264 264 264 265 266
“-” Indicates no data available.

1In 1996, NAEP began transitioning toward allowing testing accommodations for students with disabilities and for limited English proficient students. Between 1996 and 2002, scores were reported for samples with and without testing accommodations, while a new baseline was being established. Beginning in 2002, all NAEP assessments allow accommodations. Accommodations may include extra time, one-on-one administration, use of magnifying equipment, translation of assessments, or the use of bilingual dictionaries and are determined by state and district policies.

2None of the race groups include Hispanics of those races.

3Scale Scores range from 0 to 500, with a standard deviation of 100.

Source: Data for type of school and ‘unknown’ race 1992-2002 from: U.S. Department of Education. Office of Educational Research and Improvement. National Center for Education Statistics. The Nation’s Report Card: Reading 2002, NCES 2003-521, by Wendy S. Grigg, Mary C. Duane, Ying Jin, and Jay R. Campbell. Washington, DC: 2003. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/main2002/2003521.pdf. All other data for 1992-2003 U.S. Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences. The Nation’s Report Card: Reading Highlights 2003, NCES 2004-452. Washington, DC: 2003. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/main2003/2004452.pdf. Data for 2005-2015: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Reading Assessments. Accessed through the NAEP Data Explorer, at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/naepdata/

 

Appendix 2 – NAEP Reading Average Scale Scores,3 Grade 8: Selected Years, 1992-2015

1992 1994 1998 1998 2002 2003 2005 2007 2009 2011 2013 2015
No Accommodations Permitted1 Accommodations Permitted1
Total 260 260 264 263 264 263 262 263 264 265 268 265
Gender
Male 254 252 257 256 260 258 257 258 259 261 263 261
Female 267 267 270 270 269 269 267 268 269 270 273 270
Race/Hispanic Origin2
White 267 267 271 270 272 272 271 272 273 274 276 274
Black 237 236 243 244 245 244 243 245 246 249 250 248
Hispanic 241 243 245 243 247 245 246 247 249 252 256 253
Asian/Pacific Islander 268 265 267 264 267 270 271 271 274 275 280 280
American Indian 250 246 249 247 251 252 251 252
Other 256 269 265 266 266 265 267 269 271 269
Free/Reduced-Price School Lunch Program Eligibility
Eligible 246 245 249 247 247 247 249 252 254 253
Not eligible 270 269 272 271 270 271 273 275 278 277
Information not available 272 272 271 272 275 277 280 283 286 282
English Language Learner Status
ELL 218 224 222 224 223 219 224 225 223
Not ELL 264 266 265 264 265 266 267 270 268
Type of School
Public 258 257 261 261 263 261 260 261 262 264 266 264
Nonpublic 278 279 281 281 281 282 280 282 282 285
1992 1994 1998 1998 2002 2003 2005 2007 2009 2011 2013 2015
No Accommodations Permitted1 Accommodations Permitted1
Parent’s Education
Did not finish high school 243 238 243 242 248 245 244 245 248 248 251 249
Graduated high school 251 252 254 254 257 254 252 253 254 254 255 253
Some education after high school 265 266 269 268 268 267 265 266 267 267 270 267
Graduated college 271 270 274 273 274 273 272 273 274 275 278 276
Unknown 238 238 242 242 247 243 242 244 244 246 248 246
Region
Northeast 268 269 269 271 271 273 270
Midwest 269 266 266 268 268 269 268
South 261 260 261 262 264 266 263
West 258 257 258 258 261 265 263
Type of Location4
City 257 259 260 263 261
Suburb 267 268 269 272 269
Town 262 261 264 264 262
Rural 264 265 267 268 265
Percentile Score
10th 213 211 217 216 220 217 216 217 219 221 223 220
25th 237 236 242 241 244 242 240 242 243 244 246 244
50th 262 262 267 266 267 266 265 265 267 267 269 268
75th 285 286 288 288 288 288 286 287 288 289 291 290
90th 305 305 305 306 305 306 305 306 305 307 310 308
“-” Indicates no data available.

1In 1996, NAEP began transitioning toward allowing testing accommodations for students with disabilities and for limited English proficient students. Between 1996 and 2002, scores were reported for samples with and without testing accommodations, while a new baseline was being established. Beginning in 2002, all NAEP assessments allow accommodations. Accommodations may include extra time, one-on-one administration, use of magnifying equipment, translation of assessments, or the use of bilingual dictionaries and are determined by state and district policies.

2Note that none of the race groups include Hispanics of those races.

3Scale Scores range from 0 to 500, with a standard deviation of 100.

Sources: Data for type of school and ‘unknown’ race 1992-2002 from: U.S. Department of Education. Office of Educational Research and Improvement. National Center for Education Statistics. The Nation’s Report Card: Reading 2002, NCES 2003-521, by Wendy S. Grigg, Mary C. Duane, Ying Jin, and Jay R. Campbell. Washington, DC: 2003. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/main2002/2003521.pdf. All other data for 1992-2003: U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences. The Nation’s Report Card: Reading Highlights 2003, NCES 2004-452. Washington, DC: 2003. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/main2003/2004452.pdf. Data for 2005-2015: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Reading Assessments. Accessed through the NAEP Data Explorer at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/naepdata /

 

Appendix 3 – NAEP Reading Average Scale Scores,4 Grade 12: Selected Years, 1992-2013

1992 1994 1998 1998 2002 2005 2009 2013
No Accommodations Permitted1 Accommodations Permitted1
Total 292 287 291 290 287 286 288 288
Gender
Male 287 280 283 282 279 279 282 284
Female 297 294 298 298 295 292 294 293
Race/Hispanic Origin2
White 297 293 297 297 292 293 296 297
Black 273 265 271 269 267 267 269 268
Hispanic 279 270 276 275 273 272 274 276
Asian/Pacific Islander 290 278 288 287 285 287 298 296
American Indian 274 294 279 283 277
Other 287 283 298 291
Free/Reduced-Price School Lunch Program Eligibility
Eligible 271 270 273 271 273 274
Not eligible 293 293 289 290 294 296
Information not available 296 295 294 295 296 302
English Language Learner Status
ELL  – 244 245 247 240 237
Not ELL 291 288 288 290 290
Type of School
Public 290 286 289 289 285 285 287 287
Nonpublic 308 301 303 303 304
1992 1994 1998 1998 2002 2005 2009 2013
No Accommodations Permitted1 Accommodations Permitted1
Parent’s Education
Did not finish high school 275 266 268 268 268 268 269 270
Graduated high school 283 277 280 279 278 274 276 276
Some education after high school 294 289 292 291 289 287 287 288
Graduated college 301 298 301 300 296 297 299 299
Unknown 258 248 250 248 247 255 256 257
Region
Northeast 288 291 292
Midwest 293 294 291
South 282 284 286
West 283 287 287
Type of Location4
City 286 285
Suburb 292 291
Town 287 288
Rural 286 289
Percentile Score
10th 249 239 242 240 237 235 238 239
25th 271 264 268 267 263 262 264 264
50th 294 290 293 293 289 288 291 290
75th 315 313 317 317 312 313 315 315
90th 333 332 337 336 332 333 335 335
“-” Indicates no data available.

1In 1996, NAEP began transitioning toward allowing testing accommodations for students with disabilities and for limited English proficient students. Between 1996 and 2002, scores were reported for samples with and without testing accommodations, while a new baseline was being established. Beginning in 2002, all NAEP assessments allow accommodations. Accommodations may include extra time, one-on-one administration, use of magnifying equipment, translation of assessments, or the use of bilingual dictionaries and are determined by state and district policies.

2Note that none of the race groups include Hispanics of those races.

3Special analyses by the NCES of the 12th grade American Indian and Alaska Native data raised concerns about accuracy so these results should be interpreted with great caution.

4Scale Scores range from 0 to 500, with a standard deviation of 100.

Source: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. National Assessment of Educational Progress Reading Assessments (NAEP), 2013, 2009, 2005, 2003, 2000, 1996, and 1992, Reading Assessments. Accessed through the NAEP Data Explorer at http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/naepdata/

 

Endnotes


[1] Hyde, A. (2007). Mathematics and cognition. Education Leadership. 65(3), 43-47.
Jordan, W. J., and Nettles, S. M. (1999). How students invest their time out of school: Effects on school engagement, perceptions of life chances, and achievement (Report No. 29). Washington, D.C.: Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk. Available at: http://www.csos.jhu.edu/crespar/techReports/Report29.pdf

[2] Carnine, L., and Carnine, D. (2004). The interaction of reading skills and science content knowledge when teaching struggling secondary students. Reading and Writing Quarterly, 20(2), 203-218.

[3] Myers, L., and Botting, N. (2008). Literacy in the mainstream inner-city school: Its relationship to spoken language. Child Language Teaching & Therapy, 24(1), 95-114.

[4] Guthrie, J. T. and Wigfield, A. (2000). Engagement and motivation in reading. In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, and Barr, R. (Eds.). Handbook of Reading Research, volume III. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

[5] Christie, K. (2007) Mission possible: States take on adolescent literacy. Phi Delta Kappan, 88( 6), 421-422.

[6] Zaff, J. F., Moore, K.A., Papillo, A. R., & Williams, S. (2003). Implications of extracurricular activity participation during adolescence on positive outcomes. Journal of Adolescent Research, 18(06).
Ludwig, J. (1999). Information and inner city educational attainment. Economics of Education Review, 18(1), 17-30

[7] Study: 11 Million U.S. Adults Are Not Literate in English. (2006). Diverse Issues in Higher Education, 22(1).
Kirsch, I., Jungeblut, A., Jenkins, L. & Kolstad, A. (1993). Adult Literacy in America: A First Look at the Findings of the National Adult Literacy Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. [On-line]. Available http://nces.ed.gov/pubs93/93275.pdf
Humboldt Literacy Project. N.D. Fast facts on literacy. Eureka, CA. Author. [On-line]. Available: http://www.eurekawebs.com/humlit/fast_facts.htm

[8] Caspi, A., Wright, B.E., Moffit, T.E., & Silva, P.A. (1998). Childhood predictors of unemployment in early adulthood. American Sociological Review, 63(3), 424-451.

[9] Blau, F. & Kahn, L. (2000). Do cognitive test scores explain US wage inequality? National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc (RePEc:nbr:nberwo:8210).

[10] Moore, K., Glei, D., Driscoll, A., Zaslow, M., and Redd, Z. (2002). Poverty and welfare patterns: implications for children. Journal of Social Policy, 31(2), 207-227.

[11] Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). (2011). Do students today read for pleasure? PISA In Focus, No. 8. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisainfocus/48624701.pdf

[12] Note that none of the race groups include Hispanics of those races. Special analyses by the NCES of the 12th grade American Indian and Alaska Native data raised concerns about accuracy so these results are not discussed in this paper.

[13] Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). (2011). What can parents do to help their children succeed in school? PISA In Focus, No. 10. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/pisa/49012097.pdf

 

Suggested Citation:

Child Trends Databank. (2015). Reading proficiency. Available at: https://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=reading-proficiency

 

Last updated: November 2015

 

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