Category Archives: US education

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%




The place of phonics in reading instruction

True or false?

  1. Speaking is natural. Reading is not.
  2. All students learn to read differently.
  3. Kids in early grades should receive explicit phonics instruction.
  4. About 2/3 of US fourth graders can read proficiently.

(The answers are at the end of this blog.)

How kids learn to read, how reading should be taught, and how teachers of reading should be taught are still controversial in the US. This is despite an 18-year-old exhaustive study of research on reading—the National Reading Panel— authorized by Congress in 2000 which found that phonics should be the basis of reading instruction.

Even with overwhelming research, many teacher training colleges do not teach would-be teachers how to teach phonics.  And so the graduates of those schools do not teach their students through a phonics-based approach.  As a result, 60% of US fourth graders are NOT proficient readers, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Students who don’t read well by fourth grade

  • Are more likely to fall behind in other subjects.
  • Are less likely to finish high school.
  • Are more likely to be poor readers their whole lives.
  • Are more likely to be poor.
  • Are more likely to be imprisoned.

Scientific research shows that a phonetic approach to reading is crucial.  Our brains are wired to learn to speak and walk without instruction, but we cannot read without instruction.

Yet in 2016, the National Council on Teacher Quality, after reviewing the syllabi of US teacher training programs, found that only 39% are teaching their would-be teachers how to teach reading based on phonics.  This is 18 years after the US study was published!

In other words, teacher training school are either ignoring the research about how children learn to read or are willfully disregarding it.  And as a result, many students are not learning to read.

When I studied for my master’s degree in education in the early 1990’s, I took a reading course in which the instructor belittled the role of phonics in learning to read.  She said it was one of many factors, all about equal.  I thought phonics was fundamental, but I didn’t have the scientific research to back up my position.

But for the past 18 years we have had overwhelming research that shows that a phonics-based approach to teaching reading is what works best.

If your child is struggling to read, find out if his or her teacher is teaching reading using a phonics-based approach.  If you are taking your child to a tutoring center to learn reading, make sure the center is using a phonics-based approach.  If you are teaching your child to read, use phonics.

What do I mean by phonics?

  • Identifying the sounds of English. Sounds, not ABC’s, come first.
  • Matching those sounds with symbols (letters) which represent those sounds
  • Merging those sounds and symbols to form words.
  • Identifying patterns among the symbols (for example, an “e” at the end of a one-syllable word) which change or influence the sounds letters make.

(The answers are true, false, true and false.)

Colleges offer remedial reading and writing courses, but too late for most students

Many community colleges and four-year colleges in the US offer remedial reading and writing classes to incoming freshmen to raise lagging students to the base level expected for beginning freshmen.  These remedial courses offer no credit, so by the end of freshman year, students who pass these classes will not have accumulated the 30 or so credit hours expected for the first year of college education.  These students’ chances of graduating in two years from community colleges and four years from traditional colleges and universities are almost impossible.  And this means that many poor readers and writers drop out and never earn a college degree.

Colleges and universities are rethinking their remedial English courses for many reasons.

  • These remedial courses, in both English and math, cost about $7 billion each year.


  • Few freshmen who require remedial courses ever earn a degree.


  • 96% of two- and four-year colleges and universities enroll students in remedial courses.


  • In one state, California, more than 70% of community college students qualify for remedial English courses, and of those, only 60% pass the remedial courses and start credit courses, according to a 2016 study by the Public Policy Institute of California. Of those 60% who do pass, most never finish a college level English course with a C grade or better.  California is pretty typical of the rest of the country.


  • Starting in the fall of 2018, all such remedial courses will be eliminated at California State University, the largest public university system in the US. The stated purpose is to enable more students to graduate in four years.


What does this mean if you are teaching a young child to read?

Reading and writing are two of the most make-it or break-it life skills.  If a little kid is having trouble, now is the time to intervene.  The longer a student flounders, the more he falls behind and the less likely he is to catch up, even with help.  By the time a student reaches college, high school, or even middle school, it’s usually too late.  The time to learn to read and write is when a child is four, five, six and seven years old.

If you want your children to succeed, do whatever is necessary to ensure that they can read by the time they start third grade.

Is my child on schedule to read?

The US Department of Education has put together a list of accomplishments* relating to talking and reading for children from birth to six years old.  This list shows the growth of typical children developing normally, but variations exist.  By seven years old, most children are reading.

From birth to age 3, most babies and toddlers become able to

  • Make sounds that imitate the tones and rhythms that adults use when talking.
  • Respond to gestures and facial expressions.
  • Begin to associate words they hear frequently with what the words mean.
  • Make cooing, babbling sounds in the crib, which gives way to enjoying rhyming and nonsense word games with a parent or caregiver.
  • Play along in games such as “peek-a-boo” and “pat-a-cake.”
  • Handle objects such as board books and alphabet blocks in their play.
  • Recognize certain books by their covers.
  • Pretend to read books.
  • Understand how books should be handled.
  • Share books with an adult as a routine part of life.
  • Name some objects in a book.
  • Talk about characters in books.
  • Look at pictures in books and realize they are symbols of real things.
  • Listen to stories.
  • Ask or demand that adults read or write with them.
  • Begin to pay attention to specific print such as the first letters of their names.
  • Scribble with a purpose (trying to write or draw something).
  • Produce some letter-like forms and scribbles that resemble, in some way, writing.

From ages 3-4, most preschoolers become able to

  • Enjoy listening to and talking about storybooks.
  • Understand that print carries a message.
  • Make attempts to read and write.
  • Identify familiar signs and labels.
  • Participate in rhyming games.
  • Identify some letters and make some letter-sound matches.
  • Use known letters (or their best attempt to write the letters) to represent written language especially for meaningful words like their names or phrases such as “I love you.”

At age 5, most kindergartners become able to

mother works with child reading story book

  • Sound as if they are reading when they pretend to read.
  • Enjoy being read to.
  • Retell simple stories.
  • Use descriptive language to explain or to ask questions.
  • Recognize letters and letter-sound matches.
  • Show familiarity with rhyming and beginning sounds.
  • Understand that print is read left-to-right and top-to-bottom.
  • Begin to match spoken words with written ones.
  • Begin to write letters of the alphabet and some words they use and hear often.
  • Begin to write stories with some readable parts.

At age 6, most first-graders can

Young child writing C-A-T.

  • Read and retell familiar stories.
  • Use a variety of ways to help with reading a story such as rereading, predicting what will happen, asking questions, or using visual cues or pictures.
  • Decide on their own to use reading and writing for different purposes;
  • Read some things aloud with ease.
  • Identify new words by using letter-sound matches, parts of words and their understanding of the rest of a story or printed item.
  • Identify an increasing number of words by sight.
  • Sound out and represent major sounds in a word when trying to spell.
  • Write about topics that mean a lot to them.
  • Try to use some punctuation marks and capitalization.

*Based on information from Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, a report of the National Research Council, by the Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children, 1998; and from the Joint Position Statement of the International Reading Association (IRA) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), 1998.

What does the US Secretary of Education do?

Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the new Secretary of Education on February 7, 2017, a controversial and contested appointment by new US President Donald Trump.


OMB: National Priorities Project

What does the Secretary of the Education Department (ED) do?

  • She oversees federal assistance to education. According to the ED, “the Department’s elementary and secondary programs annually serve nearly 16,900 school districts and approximately 50 million students attending more than 98,000 public schools and 28,000 private schools.”  The ED also “provides grant, loan, and work-study assistance to more than 13 million postsecondary students.”
  • She oversees a budget expected to be almost $70 billion in 2017.
  • She enforces the civil rights and privacy of all students.
  • She collects data on US schools.
  • She oversees the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act which replaces the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. This act requires that students be “taught to high academic standards that will prepare them to succeed in college and careers.”
  • She advises the President on matters related to education.

Education is not mentioned in the US Constitution.  It has traditionally been the responsibility of states and localities.  Even so, the federal government has become increasingly involved in US education.  About 8% of total spending on education in the US comes from the federal government, but not all of that comes from the ED.  For example, Head Start and subsidized lunch programs are funded by other departments of the federal government.

The ED defines its primary goal as “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.”

DeVos, 59, is a multi-millionaire through inheritances from her father.  She married another multi-millionaire, the son of one of the founders of Amway.  DeVos attended private schools, including a conservative Christian high school and college. She has supported vouchers for children in public schools to allow them to attend the schools of their choice, including religious schools.  She also backs charter schools.

Why has Betsy DeVos’ appointment been contentious?  Many of those who opposed her choice say she is against public education and would use her office to undermine it.  They point out she did not study education in college nor has she worked in the field of education.  Most of her educational experience comes as an outspoken advocate for school choice and a a financial contributor to education efforts she likes.

Those supporting her choice point out her vocal support of school choice, her funding of private education, and her ongoing and generous support of Republican candidates.

In the past, Secretaries of Education have had little impact on curriculum.  Yet federal law, such as the No Child Left Behind law, has impacted curriculum, spurring a more rigorous curriculum developed by the states called the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  The CCSS is controversial with some states adapting their curricula to its standards and others abandoning or ignoring it.  President Trump has said that he opposes the Common Core.  DeVos has served in organizations which support it.