WASHINGTON — The nation's students are mired at a basic level of reading in fourth and eighth grades, their achievement in recent years largely stagnant, according to a federal report Wednesday that suggests a dwindling academic payoff from the No Child Left Behind law.
The report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that fourth-grade reading scores stalled after the law took effect in 2002, rose modestly in 2007, then stalled again in 2009. Eighth-grade scores showed a slight uptick since 2007 — one point on a scale of 500 — but no gain over the seven-year span when President George W. Bush's program for school reform was in high gear.
Florida is among nine states whose eighth-graders made increases on a closely watched national reading test last year, and Florida fourth-graders now trail peers in only six other states. In 2009, Florida's eighth-graders bested the national average in reading for the first time, with 76 percent reading at a basic level or above, up from 71 percent in 2007.
The percentage of Florida fourth-graders reading at basic level or above also increased since 2007, from 70 to 73 percent, but the change is not considered statistically significant. Nonetheless, Florida now trails only Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont and Virginia in fourth-grade reading (though it's tied at that spot with five other states). In 1998, Florida fourth-graders ranked near the bottom nationally.
No Child Left Behind, which Bush signed in 2002, aimed to spur a revolution in reading. The government spent billions to improve instruction and required schools to monitor student progress every year toward an ambitious goal of eliminating achievement gaps.
Yet an authoritative series of federal tests has found only isolated gains — notably including the District of Columbia's long-troubled public schools — but no great leaps for the nation.
Last fall, the government reported sluggish gains in math in a companion series of federal tests. Taken together, the reading and math results are likely to be seized on by would-be reformers as evidence a new approach should be taken.
"Today's results once again show that the achievement of American students isn't growing fast enough," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. "The reading scores demonstrate that students aren't making the progress necessary to compete in the global economy. We shouldn't be satisfied with these results. By this and many other measures, our students aren't on a path to graduate high school ready to succeed in college and the workplace."
Times staff writer Ron Matus contributed to this report.