Reading students make grade; Test shows state’s white, black, Hispanic pupils compare well with peers

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Texas’ white, black and Hispanic students fare well against their peer groups across the country in reading, according to new scores from “the Nation’s Report Card,” the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The NAEP, which is given by the federal government, is perhaps the most respected of the nation’s major academic tests. Unlike state tests such as the TAAS or TAKS, students don’t spend months preparing for the NAEP. Teachers don’t swap strategies on ways to beat the NAEP, as they sometimes do with the state tests that can define their schools’ accountability ratings.

The NAEP is graded on a 500-point scale and given to a scientifically selected sample of fourth- and eighth-graders across the country. In fourth grade, state averages ranged from 234 (Massachusetts) to 203 (Mississippi). In eighth grade, they ranged from 272 (Vermont) to 250 (California).

Overall, Texas’ scores aren’t spectacular. Its fourth-graders scored a 217, which ranked them 29th of 43 states that took the test. At eighth grade, 41 states took the test; Texas finished 28th, with a score of 262.

But those low scores are highly influenced by demographics. Texas students are more likely to be poor, have trouble speaking English or be recent immigrants than the national average.

Breaking down the scores by racial groups paints a sunnier picture.

? White fourth-grade students finished sixth in the country when compared with whites in other states. At eighth grade, white Texas students ranked third.

? Texas’ Hispanic fourth-grade students finished fifth in the country. Hispanic eighth-graders finished ninth.

? Black students also fared well, ranking 13th in fourth grade and seventh in eighth grade.

Texas students scored above the national average on both tests in every racial and ethnic subgroup.

“The performance of Texas students on the NAEP reading exam stacks up well against their peers nationwide,” said Felipe Alanis, the Texas education commissioner.

This pattern of test scores is not new for Texas. The state’s racial and ethnic groups have historically fared well when compared with their peers in other states on NAEP. But their overall scores are lower because of Texas’ larger population of poor and minority students.

“If you look at the states that do better than us, they tend to be very homogenous and very white,” said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. “It’s the Connecticuts and the Delawares and the Montanas of the world. Our test-taking population was much more ethnically diverse and had a higher percentage of poor children.”

That population shift has sped up in the last few years. When the NAEP reading test was last given in 1998, 50 percent of the fourth-graders tested in Texas were white. On the most recent test given last year, only 37 percent were.

Making improvements

Nationally, fourth-graders made a substantial gain, jumping from 213 two years ago to 217. Eighth-graders nationally moved up one point, while 12th-graders dropped three points. (NAEP does not report state-by-state results for 12th-graders because the number of students tested was too small.)

“Today’s results show that the best students are still getting better, but the lower-performing students are getting better, too,” said Rod Paige, U.S. secretary of education.

In Texas, NAEP provides some ammunition for those who argue that the state’s large gains on the TAAS test exaggerate how much progress the state has made.

From 1994 to 2002, the TAAS reading passing rate for fourth-graders increased by 19 percentage points, from 73 to 92 percent. But the percentage of fourth-graders reaching the “basic” level on NAEP ? a comparable but somewhat more difficult task ? increased only four points, from 58 to 62 percent.

The pattern for eighth-graders is similar. From 1998 to 2002, their TAAS passing rates went up 13 percentage points, while NAEP basic rates increased only one point.

“The longer that kids are in a system aimed at increasing a single test score, the more time they’re spending in class taking practice tests aimed at the one score,” said Linda McNeil, a Rice professor who has been critical of Texas’ testing system. “That robs you of class time to spend doing other things that aren’t narrowly focused on the test.”

“I think if we weren’t seeing any gains or declines, I might be willing to buy that argument,” Ms. Ratcliffe said. “But I think as long as the trend lines are moving in the same direction, they’re not inconsistent. We know that our test closely reflected what was taught in Texas classrooms. This is a national test that’s not necessarily tied to our curriculum. It’s expected.”

Texas exclusions

In addition, Texas schools excluded more students from testing than most other states. On the fourth-grade test, for example, 11 percent of Texas students were excluded from NAEP testing because they were special-education students or did not speak English well. The national exclusion rate was only 7 percent.

Excluding those students ? who usually don’t do well on tests ? typically increases average test scores.

Ms. Ratcliffe said that higher exclusion rate can be explained by Texas’ larger-than-average population of recent immigrants and other non-English speakers. The Texas exclusion rate was also three points lower than it was for the 1998 reading NAEP.

Expecting more gains

Texas officials say they expect larger gains in future years because of the Texas Reading Initiative, which has trained teachers in early grades on reading techniques. State officials credit the program with the better-than-expected scores of third-graders on this spring’s TAKS reading test.

Those third-graders will be in fourth grade next year, when the NAEP reading test is next given again. The federal No Child Left Behind law now mandates NAEP reading and math tests every other year.