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Is It a Reading Crisis…or a Thinking Crisis?

Schools devote more time to reading and literacy instruction in the elementary grades than to any other subject. In fact, the time devoted to literacy has increased by 25% since 1998. So why did average reading scores drop for 4th and 8th graders on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)? Perhaps we are focusing on the wrong things.

What NAEP Reading Scores Tell Us

Known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” the NAEP has been used as a standardized measure of academic progress at the state and national level since 1969. Since 1992, a representative sample of 4thand 8thgrade students have been tested across each state in reading and math every two years. (The NAEP also assesses a nationally representative sample of 12thgraders every four years, along with a range of other subject areas including writing, science, civics, geography, economics, U.S. history, technology & engineering literacy, and arts.)

In 2019, reading scores for 4thgraders dropped two points, from 222 to 220 on a 500-point scale. Reading scores for 8thgraders dropped four points, from 267 to 263. Looking at results at the state level, reading scores dropped for 4thgraders in 17 states and for 8thgraders in 31 states. Only one state (Mississippi) saw significant gains at the 4thgrade level and only the District of Columbia demonstrated gains for 8thgraders. The decline was seen for students in all subgroups and in both low-performing and high-performing students. However, students already performing at the lowest levels lost the most ground, widening achievement gaps between the highest-performing and lowest-performing students.

Even before the 2019 results came in, reading scores had been largely stagnant for more than a decade. The lowest-performing students have not made substantial gains in the last 30 years, despite all of the attention (and funding) given to reading and literacy.

A Troubling Decline in Reading Proficiency

While two or four points may seem like a small change on a 500-point scale, the results are significant—and disappointing. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos called the results "devastating." That’s because our students were already struggling and can’t afford to lose more ground.

Nationally, only 34% of 4th graders are reading at or above the “proficient” level on the NAEP, and 35% score below the “basic” level. At the 8th grade level, only 32% of students score at or above “proficient” and 38% score “below basic”. Our students are starting out from behind and failing to catch up.

This matters, because reading proficiency is strongly tied to graduation rates, higher education attainment, and success in the workforce. Among proficient readers, 96% of students graduate from high school by age 19. The dropout rate for students reading at the basic level is 9%, and a shocking 23% of students reading below the basic level fail to graduate from high school. These students are at significant risk in today’s information economy.

The achievement gap between white students and minority students is especially troubling. Nationally, black students lag 26 points behind their white peers at the 4th grade level and 27 points behind at the 8th grade level. Hispanic student score 21 points lower than white students in 4th grade and 20 points lower in 8th grade on average. These gaps have not closed significantly over the last decade.

Why Are Reading Scores Dropping?

The question, of course, is why students are losing ground in reading proficiency. It certainly is not for a lack of attention. Over the last 20 years, billions of dollars have been devoted to reading and literacy instruction through Title I, School Improvement Grants, Striving Readers and other federal programs targeted specifically for reading, and numerus state and private foundation grants. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Education rolled out the Comprehensive Literacy State Development Program (CLSD) to replace Striving Readers.

The impact of many these efforts seems to be largely concentrated in the early years of implementation, leveling off or declining in later years—exactly what we see in the NAEP scores. Many literacy programs are successful in helping students to improve up to a point, but fail to help students move from “basic” to “proficient” or “advanced” levels.

This may be in part because many programs focus on the mechanics and prerequisites of reading: decoding, fluency, word recognition and basic vocabulary. These are certainly critical foundational skills that should not be ignored, especially in the early grades. However, some programs—particularly intervention programs—focus on these to the detriment of reading meaningful, grade-appropriate content and teaching students to extract meaning from what they read. When comprehension skills are taught, they are often taught in isolation, as if the purpose of reading is to “find the main idea” or “make inferences.”

The purpose of reading is much bigger than these individual comprehension skills. To be truly proficient in reading, students must be able to not only decode and understand the individual words but be able to understand, respond to, and interact with the content in a holistic way. This requires students to draw upon a variety of complex thinking skills. Helping students gain proficiency and fluency in these core cognitive skills will help them get more meaning from what they are reading.

To Improve Reading, Focus on Thinking

Thinking Maps addresses reading comprehension and literacy by focusing on thinking. The eight Maps are tied to the eight foundational cognitive processes that underlie all learning. Students learn to activate these processes deliberately, recognize key words in the text that indicate which process should be used, and use the Maps in combination for deep comprehension and analysis. Using the Maps consistently helps students build fluency and automaticity with the cognitive processes.

Students use the Maps to draw meaning from what they are reading, analyze complex texts, and make connections to other texts or to prior knowledge. By making the thinking processes behind reading comprehension visible, the Maps help even struggling students access grade-level content and demonstrate their understanding.

There is evidence that this approach works. A recent study by a third-party research group showed that schools using Thinking Maps were twice as likely as their district peers to surpass average gains in reading. Download the full report here: The Effects of Thinking Maps in Raising Student Achievement—A Retrospective Study of Outcomes from Implementing Schools.

To get students to the next level of reading proficiency, we need to help them move beyond the basics and focus on deep comprehension and higher order thinking. For many students—especially struggling readers—a visual Thinking Map is the tool that will help them get there.

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