Category Archives: reading tests

1/3 of US children are good readers as reading ability declines

One third of US  fourth and eighth graders scored in the “proficient” range or higher for reading, according to a nationwide test given earlier this year.  Two-thirds of US students are reading at either a basic level or below grade level.

These findings come from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test sometimes referred to as the nation’s Report Card because it samples students in fourth and eighth grades across the country.  Its results were announced today.  Evaluating progress in reading and math, these tests have been given since 1994.

Reading scores across the US fell in more than half the states in 2022, with no state showing good improvement, according to the test results.

These test results are the first since the pandemic closed schools and led to online learning for many students.  According to the test, 66% of fourth graders and 69% of eighth graders scored below a proficient level in reading.

Test results vary greatly by location, though factors leading to these differences can be complex.  Even so, here are results, state by state, showing proficiency levels.  Proficiency means “demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter,” or high achievement.

Proficiency levels in reading, 2022

State 4th grade 8th grade
National Average 33% 31%
Alabama 28% 22%
Alaska 24% 26%
Arizona 31% 28%
Arkansas 30% 26%
California 31% 30%
Colorado 38% 34%
Connecticut 35% 35%
Delaware 25% 24%
Dist. of Columbia 26% 22%
Florida 39% 29%
Georgia 32% 31%
Hawaii 35% 31%
Idaho 32% 32%
Illinois 33% 32%
Indiana 33% 31%
Iowa 33% 29%
Kansas 31% 26%
Kentucky 31% 29%
Louisiana 28% 27%
Maine 29% 29%
Maryland 31% 33%
Massachusetts 43% 40%
Michigan 28% 28%
Minnesota 32% 30%
Mississippi 31% 22%
Missouri 30% 28%
Montana 34% 29%
Nebraska 34% 29%
Nevada 27% 29%
New Hampshire 37% 33%
New Jersey 38% 42%
New Mexico 21% 18%
New York 30% 32%
North Carolina 32% 26%
North Dakota 31% 27%
Ohio 35% 33%
Oklahoma 24% 21%
Oregon 28% 28%
Pennsylvania 34% 31%
Rhode Island 34% 31%
South Carolina 32% 27%
South Dakota 32% 31%
Tennessee 30% 28%
Texas 30% 23%
Utah 37% 36%
Vermont 34% 34%
Virginia 32% 31%
Washington 34% 32%
West Virginia 22% 22%
Wisconsin 33% 32%
Wyoming 38% 30%




Parental expectations for ELL can be too high

How long should it take for an English Language Learner (a student learning English as a second language) to read at grade level?

Longer than many parents want.

I am working with an ELL fifth grader from another country.  I tested her by having her read a list of basic English words, all of which she said she knew.  Then I had her read passages at a second, third and fourth grade level, and answer questions.

What I noticed is that she could score 100% on the second and third grade questions, providing the questions were multiple choice.  If she had to write a definition, she could copy what the passage said, but she could not paraphrase the words.  If she had to write sentences in her own words, she couldn’t do it.  If she could say the sentences aloud rather than write them, she couldn’t do it.

This is typical.  Multiple choice responses are easiest since the answer is provided; you just have to identify it.  Putting ideas into your own words is harder because you must rely on vocabulary which might not be in the passage and you must create sentences, a task which calls on so many skills—vocabulary, grammar, syntax, subject-verb agreement, pronoun case, articles—the list goes on and on.  A person can learn to read English without learning to speak or to write, but in the US students are tested verbally and in writing, and of course both skills are needed for 21st century success.

Another factor to consider when judging how long learning to read will take is whether English is spoken at home.  For this student, it is not.  She cannot ask a parent what a word means.  She cannot hear proper pronunciation.  She is on her own.

Still another factor is the student’s motivation to learn English.  My student is motivated.  She focuses for the full hour we are together and completes her homework.

The mother of this student hoped that her daughter would learn to read quickly enough to be ready for fifth grade state exams in three months.  I told the mother that is unlikely, watching sadness fill her eyes.

Could it happen?  Yes, for an extremely intelligent and motivated learner living in an enriched English environment.  But is it likely?  No.  Becoming fluent in a language takes time, more time than many parents want.

Kids need to know the facts

When I go to students’ homes to tutor them in reading and writing, I bring a pocket-sized  atlas.  That is because inevitably a geographical place is named in a reading passage, and when I ask the students if they know where “Scandinavia” or “New Zealand” is, they don’t know.

It’s not just knowledge of geography which students lack.   It’s when the American Revolution happened, or what news event happened in Egypt this past week or why it’s correct to say the sun is a relatively close star.

Kids just don’t know.

But this lack of knowledge has serious effects on their reading comprehension scores.  I was working on a reading passage with a middle schooler recently, and one of the questions was why Charles Darwin was mentioned but not identified in a passage about the Galapagos Islands.  The student shrugged.  “Who is Charles Darwin?” I asked.  The student shrugged again.  How could he answer the question if he didn’t know who Darwin is?

This problem becomes more acute when the student is from another country and from another first language (or if his parents are).  Years ago I taught two brothers, third and second graders, who were English language learners.  They were reading a passage about Halloween.  They had no idea what “Halloween” meant,  nor jack-o-lanterns nor trick-or-treating.  How could they answer the questions about Halloween in the reading passage?  I took them trick-or-treating on the next Halloween, but their parents were mystified why people would give their children candy.

Even if kids know the code of reading—the sounds of our language and how putting letters together forms words—they cannot score well on comprehension if they don’t know what the facts in the passage are, and what unstated facts are expected to be known as general background knowledge.

I was working with Georgia students using a passage from a New York State test.  The passage concerned winter, snow and sledding.  “I’ve never seen snow,” said my student.  I put the passage away.

If you have young children, read them not just fairy tales and nursery rhymes, but nonfiction—facts.  If you have middle schoolers or older, talk to them about current events, and if they don’t know where something is happening, point to the location on a map.  Use dinners or car rides to offer information.

Ignorance is no advantage in reading or in life.

How to answer test questions for reading passages

Beginning in third grade, students need to learn strategies for answering multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank questions.  Here is a five-part strategy which works.

Student holding paper and reading it as he is writing

First, read the questions, not the selection.  That way, as you read the selection, you already know what the questions are and you might find answers.

Second, as you read the questions, circle key words.  Now find those same key words in the selection and circle them there.  Read the sentence or two before the circled words and the sentence or two after to be sure you have the right answer.

Third, underline the correct answer.  Next to the underline write the number of the question in case you need to go back later to check.

Fourth, in multiple choice questions, cross out any wrong answers. Don’t let them distract you. Usually one or two are obviously wrong, and the two left are pretty close to the right answer.  But one of those is usually better.


Fifth, figure out the main idea.  Almost always one question asks for the main idea.  The question might ask, “What was this reading passage about?”  Or it might ask, “What could be another name for this story?”  To find out, reread the title or headline.  Reread the first paragraph, and especially if you are reading nonfiction, reread the last sentence of the first paragraph.  Or sometimes the main idea can be found in the last paragraph where the passage might be summarized.  Still don’t know?  Look for key words throughout the passage, words that are repeated.