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Indicator I-1 Reading Competency among School-Age Children
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Updated (6/25/2010).

See the
Note on the Difference between NAEP "Achievement" and "Performance" Levels.

The NAEP includes two assessments in reading. The first, currently administered every two years and usually referred to as the “main” NAEP reading assessment, changes in response to the current state of curricula and educational practices. The second test is specifically designed to generate long-term trend data. Administered every two to five years, this examination has remained essentially unchanged since it was first given to students in 1971; it features shorter reading passages than the main NAEP assessment and gauges students’ ability to locate specific information, make inferences, and identify the main idea of a passage. The results of this second assessment are reported below.

The NAEP long-term trend exam is taken by a nationally representative sample of students in each of three different age groups: 9-year-olds, 13-year-olds, and 17-year-olds. The percentages indicated on the figures for this indicator are cumulative totals; they indicate the percentage of students in each grade level scoring at or above each NAEP performance level. (NAEP performance thresholds are constructed at 50-point intervals and range from 150 to 350; see the Note on the Difference between NAEP "Achievement" and "Performance" Levels.) The performance levels are also cumulative in the sense that students performing at each level also display all the competencies associated with the level(s) below it. (See NAEP’s detailed descriptions of the skills demonstrated by students scoring at each performance level.) Also, although the performance levels at which the majority of students score are different for each of the age groups (a result of their cumulative nature), the color-coding of the levels is consistent across Figures I-1a, I-1b, and I-1c. Blue represents the percentage of students scoring at or above the most basic performance level for that age group. Red represents the percentage scoring at or above the intermediate performance level. Gold represents the percentage scoring at or above the advanced performance level.

In 2004, the NAEP long-term assessment was updated in several ways. Content and administration procedures were revised, and, for the first time, accommodations were made for English language learners and students with disabilities that would allow these students to be included in the assessment (they have been included in the main NAEP reading assessment since 1996). Both the original and revised formats were administered in 2004 so NCES could investigate the effects of the new format on scores. This "bridge" study indicated that differences in student scores between the two formats were solely attributable to the inclusion of students with disabilities and English language learners in the testing population. On the basis of these findings, NCES concluded, “bearing in mind the differences in the populations of students assessed (accommodated vs. not accommodated), future assessment results could be compared to those from earlier assessments based on the original version.”1

Among 9-year-olds (Figure I-1a), reading performance increased steadily, if slowly, between the early 1970s and 1980. Reading performance then began declining and by 1990 had largely returned to its original level (though somewhat more students were assessed at the highest performance level for this grade than in 1971). The 1990s were another period of modest improvement, with incrementally greater percentages of students attaining Levels 150 and 200, which represent the basic and intermediate performance levels. (Nonetheless, the percentage of students scoring at the highest performance level did drop slightly.) The period between 1999 and 2008, the most recent year in which the assessment was administered, was one of more marked progress. In 2008, a higher percentage of students than in any previous assessment year—96%, up 5 percentage points from 1971—demonstrated the ability to perform simple, discrete reading tasks associated with the most basic performance level (Level 150). At the high end of the performance spectrum (Level 250), students demonstrated gains of a similar magnitude, with an increase from 16% to 21% in the proportion of students demonstrating the ability to interrelate ideas and make generalizations. The greatest gains among 9-year-olds from 1999 to 2008 were realized in the middle of the performance spectrum (Level 200). In 2008, 73% of students—up 9 percentage points from 1999 (and up 14 points from 1971)—demonstrated the ability to:

locate and identify facts from simple informational paragraphs, stories, and news articles;
combine ideas and make inferences based on short, uncomplicated passages; and
understand specific details or sequentially related information.

This increase is the most striking development observed in any age group to date. At the same time, however, the increase since 1980, the peak of the early upswing in scores, is a more modest 5 percentage points. Thus, the story of 9-year-olds’ reading performance since 1971 is more one of recovery of lost gains than continuous progress.

Figure I-1a, Full Size
Supporting Data Supporting Data

The story for early adolescents, on the other hand, is one of stasis. Although the early 1990s saw an increase in the percentage of 13-year-old students scoring at the middle and high performance levels (Levels 250 and 300), little movement in scores was observed until 2008 (Figure I-1b). In this year, the percentage of students scoring at or above the intermediate performance level increased by 4 percentage points to 63%. In 2008, nearly all students (94%) displayed partially developed skills and understanding (i.e., scored at least 200), but only 13% demonstrated the ability to understand complicated information (i.e., scored 300 or better).

Figure I-1b, Full Size
Supporting Data Supporting Data

For 17-year-olds, the percentage of students achieving at least basic competency (Level 250) rose from 79% in 1971 to a high of 86% in 1988 (Figure I-1c). Subsequently, however, this trend reversed, and by 2008 the percentage had returned to that recorded in 1971. The trend in midlevel achievement was similar: an increase followed by reversion to the original level. Thus in 2008, as in 1971, 39% of students left high school (most of the 17-year-olds tested were secondary-school seniors) able to understand complicated literary and informational passages (Level 300). The share of students exiting with the ability to extend and restructure ideas drawn from specialized or complex texts (Level 350) was 6% in 2008, having changed little over the previous 40 years.

Figure I-1c, Full Size
Supporting Data Supporting Data

(The NAEP Data Explorer permits analysis of these assessment data by gender, ethnicity, and a number of other key variables. With this tool one can also obtain results of recent reading assessments for individual states and compare these with student outcomes in other parts of the country. For both an overview of Explorer and tips for its effective use, see The Explorer itself is located at

Data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reveal that American 15-year-olds demonstrate levels of reading proficiency similar to students in Japan, France, and Germany (Figure I-1d displays assessment results for selected nations). In 2003,2 the percentage of U.S. 15-year-olds who could read at least moderately complex texts (58% at Level 3 or above) was statistically indistinguishable from the OECD average but substantially smaller than the percentage of students with this level of proficiency in the top-ranked countries, Korea and Canada.

Figure I-1d, Full Size
Supporting Data Supporting Data

1 U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, n.d., “2004 Bridge Study,”

2 The most recent administration of PISA was in 2006. Regrettably, the results for the U.S. reading assessment are not available. Irregularities in the test booklets resulted in unreliable scores, which OECD opted not to publish.

Note on the Difference between NAEP "Achievement" and "Performance" Levels

The figures for Indicators I-1 through I-4 display the percentages of students scoring at certain levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The NAEP reading examination is scored differently from the other NAEP examinations (such as those in writing, history, and civics). On the latter exams, students are assessed according to grade-specific achievement scales. A student’s level of achievement is judged to be “basic,” “proficient,” or “advanced” depending on his or her score on the appropriate scale. A child scoring at the “advanced” achievement level on the 12th-grade civics exam is demonstrating different skills than a fourth grader scoring at the “advanced” level.

In contrast, the NAEP reading assessment uses a single scale, referred to as a performance scale, for 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds. What constitutes “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced” performance depends on the age of the examinee. Both a 9-year-old and a 17-year-old may score at Level 250 (able to interrelate ideas and make generalizations). Such a score would constitute an advanced level of performance on the part of the 9-year-old and a basic level of performance on the part of the 17-year-old.

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