All over the country parents are boasting of the advanced courses their children are taking. With AP this and honors that, student transcripts seem to suggest that we are living in Lake Woebegone where all our children are above average.
Alas, results from the latest administration of the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), otherwise known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” suggests otherwise. Despite rising grade-point averages and evidence that students are taking supposedly more rigorous coursework, only 35 percent of 12th grade students scored proficient or better. This was the worst performance on the NAEP reading assessment since the test began.
So what’s up? As a teacher who has been involved with development of the NAEP assessment in reading, I can offer some explanation. Achievement levels on the test are set high. While I believe in rigorous assessment, it can also confuse lay readers of the data who might consider “proficient” work the kind that might be produced by a C student. In fact, a proficient performance on the NAEP reading assessment is more likely to be the work of a B or B+ student. “Advanced” performances are truly outstanding.
Even given this explanation of NAEP results, we need to confront the fact that our children are not reading enough. Excuses for how busy teenagers are with sports and extracurricular activities are just that, excuses. In order to achieve the kind of advanced literacy that the contemporary world demands, students need to read challenging literature, both fiction and nonfiction. As Dana Gioa, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has said, “Advanced literacy is a specific intellectual skill and social habit. Print culture affords irreplaceable forms of focused attention and contemplation that make complex communications and insights possible.”
High schools must take an honest look at what is passing for advanced coursework within their hallowed halls. Sometimes what is going on inside the classroom doesn’t live up to the course’s august title. The College Board is trying to bring consistency to Advanced Placement classes by requiring every AP teacher to submit a syllabus for their approval. It is a sound first step, but we need to make sure that what is described on the page is occurring in every classroom.
I have taught 10th grade honors English for 28 years. From September to June, my students study 10 books in class and read 10 books out of class. While sheer numbers of pages covered don’t necessarily translate into learning, I believe quantity matters. So does the quality of the works we ask students to read. It is not just me who is doing the teaching but Homer and Shakespeare and Richard Wright. Fifteen-year-olds who read a wide variety of books, talk about what they read, and write about what they are thinking develop the habits of mind that almost guarantee they will be successful in college. I also contend that consuming so many books encourages teenagers to become fluent and habitual readers.
In The Reading Zone (2006), Nancie Atwell describes her 7th and 8th grade classroom where students read 40 books over the course of the school year. Students leave as “strong, literary, well-above-grade-level readers. But they also leave smarter, about such a diversity of words, ideas, events, artifacts, people and places, that they can take my breath away.” How does Atwell accomplish this? Along with a systematic design for modeling and fostering independent reading, Atwell requires her students to commit to reading 30 minutes every night for homework.
Next time you are tempted to bemoan the state of public education and national reading scores, take a peek inside your child’s bedroom. How many books are on the shelves or (even better) on the floor? Is the television on? How about the computer? Before taking your child’s word for it when she tells you that she doesn’t have time to read, check the minutes on your phone bill. And don’t be afraid to confront teachers about their expectations for reading. Too often we yuppie parents are so happy with an A on a report card that we forget to ask the more important question about what it took to earn that grade.
Carol Jago has taught middle and high school English for 32 years in Santa Monica and directs the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.