[Assessment 1256] Reading Today article

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tsticht at znet.com tsticht at znet.com
Wed Feb 13 12:18:54 EST 2008

Colleagues: I am pleased to report that the following article appears in the
Vol. 25, No. 4, February/March 2008 issue of Reading Today, the official
newspaper of the International Reading Association (IRA). Reading Today is
read by over a 100,000 people in more than 30 nations. Tom Sticht

The great literacy testing debacle in the United States

By Thomas G. Sticht

Debacle: n. A total, often ludicrous failure. Online dictionary
at www.answers.com/topic/debacle

The United States seems to be caught up in measurement mania when it comes
to literacy. The No Child Left Behind law calls for extensive testing of
children's reading abilities in different grade levels. For adults, the
U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has developed adult literacy tests,
while Title 2: The Adult Education and Family Literacy Act of the Workforce
Investment Act of 1998 calls for accountability measures that the DOE has
implemented in a national reporting system that makes extensive use of
adult literacy tests.

The actual measurement instruments and procedures for measuring
reading/literacy and
comparing states suffer from major flaws. They all follow different
procedures in their development, which renders them incomparable, hence
interpretations of data produced by comparing the various tests are
essentially meaningless.

Testing children's reading achievement

On page 39 of the June 4, 2007 issue of Time magazine a graph is presented
showing differences between the percentage of fourth graders in each state
who are deemed "proficient" in reading based on each state's different
standardized test. The graph also shows the percentage deemed "proficient"
on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is a
standardized test given in all states. There are some very significant
differences between the state and national test results. For instance,
Mississippi reports that nearly 90 percent of fourth graders are proficient
in reading on the state-developed test, while on the NAEP only about 19
percent score as proficient. This is a whopping 71 percentage points

The Time article reported that when using state test data the average
percentage of fourth graders considered proficient is 70%. On the national
NAEP tests only 30% of U.S. fourth graders score as proficient. This is a
40-point average gap between state and national estimates of fourth-grade
reading proficiency. The state and national tests
use different procedures to determine if children are proficient readers;
hence they are not commensurate. This raises these questions. Which tests
should be considered valid indicators of the reading achievement level of
the nation's fourth-graders? Should it be, the state or the federal tests -
or perhaps neither?

Testing adult's literacy levels

Jumping ahead to when fourth graders have grown up, the 2003 National
Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) presents data for prose and document
literacy that indicate that in 1992 15% of adults over the age of 16 scored
as proficient on these tests. In 2003, 13% of adults scored as proficient, a
drop of 2%. Surprisingly, only 30% of adult college graduates scored as
proficient in literacy.

Although there are clearly differences between the NAEP reading tests for
fourth graders and adult literacy tests, again rendering them
incommensurate, they both attempt to portray how many of their target
groups are "proficient" in literacy. The data indicate that there are fewer
than half as many adults (13%) who are proficient in literacy as there are
fourth graders (30%) who are proficient using the federal NAEP, and there
are only a fifth as many proficient adults as there are proficient fourth
graders (70%), if the average of the state-made tests are used. This
suggests a tremendous loss of proficiency as children grow into adulthood!

Measuring literacy for accountability

The problem of assessing literacy also shows up in the accountability system
of the nation's Adult Education and Literacy System (AELS), which is made up
of some 3,000 programs funded jointly by federal money from Title 2 of the
Workforce Investment Act of 1998 and state and local funds.

The National Reporting System (NRS) which prepares reports on how well
adults are learning to read in the AELS, has acknowledged that different
states use different standardized tests, with differing amounts of time
between pre- and posttests to assess growth in literacy learning. But
despite the acknowledged lack of comparability in the tests and procedures
used in various states, the NRS computes averages of the percentage of
adults making learning gains throughout the 50 states. Of course, the lack
of comparability in measurement tools and their administration renders
these data totally meaningless and useless to Congress (or anyone else for
that matter) in deciding whether or not states are using their federal
funds responsibly and productively.

The debacle of testing literacy ability

Despite the faults of testing for literacy skills, there is apparently no
hesitancy in using the test results to reward some educators and punish
others for what they are doing to teach literacy, whether to children or
adults. Despite extensive use of standardized tests of various sorts by the
50 states, 30-year reading trend data with the NAEP show minimal if any
improvement for 9-, 13-, or 17-year-old children since the early 1970s.
Further, the testing of adult literacy in 1992 and again in 2003 shows
little or no improvement in literacy at the lowest levels and a decline at
the highest levels.

To date, then, the great literacy testing debacle has cost hundreds of
millions of dollars, threatened teachers and administrators, subjected
children to hours of drill and practice in test taking rather than engaging
in learning important content and skills, and cast aspersions on the
literacy skills of America's workforce, thus advertising to the world that
the U. S. workforce is incompetent. This cannot be good for the health and
welfare of the nation or its international competitiveness in the global

Even if we could get literacy testing right - which we have not done up to
now - there is no way we can test ourselves out of the serious educational
problems that afflict our K-12 and adult literacy education systems. There
is a word for the obsessive repetition of utterly foolish, unreasonable,
and failed practices: insanity.

Thomas G. Sticht is an international consultant in adult education and lives
El Cajon, California