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State 4th-graders lead U.S. in improved reading
Pre-high school youths across nation doing better in math, reading

By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Education officials became as giddy as students on a playground after a lunch of cake and candy Tuesday as they announced that Alabama’s fourth-graders lead the nation in reading improvements.

But the elation was tempered by the state’s struggle to improve the number of students performing at a proficient level. The fourth-graders’ improvement was significant, but they and other Alabama students tested trail national averages and have a lot of catching up to do.

Tuesday’s news conference in downtown Montgomery took on the air of a pep rally, with a room full of educators cheering, whooping and holding up signs reading WE’RE A1.

“We have been saying for a couple of years now the direction is right; the pace is not what we want. Would you just look? This is what we need,” Assistant State Superintendent of Reading Katherine Mitchell said, gesturing to a chart showing Alabama’s scores raised by eight points — three points more than the nearest competitors.

“It’s not even close! This is the pace we want,” Mitchell gloated. “We whipped ’em!”

The National Assessment Governing Board released the results Tuesday as part of the Nation’s Report Card. The report uses data from National
Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, tests that are given every two years.

Schools in each state are randomly selected and students in the fourth and eighth grades are tested on math and reading.

Despite Alabama’s gains, the state’s students are still scoring below the national average in all four categories. Also, the gap in math scores of black and white eighth-graders has widened by two points since 1992 and the gap in the reading scores of excelling and struggling eighth-graders grew by three points — up from 44 in 1998.

Alabama’s score

The fourth grade reading score in Alabama was 216 points compared to 220 points nationally and the state’s eighth-graders scored 252 in reading compared to the 261 national average.

In math, Alabama fourth-graders scored 229 compared to 239 nationally and the state eighth grade score was 252 compared to 261 nationally.

Charles Smith, who is the executive director of the national association, said he would have been encouraged to have Alabama’s trend line back in his days as Tennessee’s state superintendent. However, Smith said he’d “also be cognizant of the reality that we are still well below where we want to be in getting students up to the level where we need to be to compete in society.”

“The eight-point gain was a very significant change, but that still leaves the state four points below the national average,” he said.

State Superintendent of Education Joe Morton said he wasn’t letting the elation of the moment overshadow the state’s future goals and heavy task of raising all scores to at least the national levels.

Credit

He and Gov. Bob Riley credited much of the improvements to the Alabama Reading Initiative and Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative, which were in 13 percent and 23 percent of the schools where students were tested.

Riley said he hopes to have AMSTI in every school in the next two years and plans are set for expanding the reading initiative from just elementary schools to higher grades.

“If we can get them through the eighth grade, our graduation rate goes up, our dropout rate goes down and we can get them the credentials to go on to work or college or both,” Morton said. “That’s what we need to do because it really is the building block to higher and better graduation rates.”

Dean Murray, purchasing coordinator for the education department, wiped away tears during the announcement as she thought about what the news meant for her 6-year-old grandson’s academic future.

The first grader is already reading and learning how to spell, she said.

“It’s just the fact that Alabama for once is number one. It’s just the most amazing thing,” Murray said following the meeting. “A lot of people have given up on public schools. We’re just not going to do that.”

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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