Tuesday, March 24, 2015

2015 Brown Center Report on American Education: Reading Gap, Reading Achievement and the Common Core, Student Engagement

The 2015 Brown Center Report (BCR) represents the 14th edition of the series since the first issue was published in 2000.  It includes three studies.  Like all previous BCRs, the studies explore independent topics but share two characteristics: they are empirical and based on the best evidence available.  The studies in this edition are on the gender gap in reading, the impact of the Common Core State Standards -- English Language Arts on reading achievement, and student engagement.

Part I: Girls, Boys, and Reading examines the gender gap in reading.  Girls outscore boys on practically every reading test given to a large population.  And they have for a long time.  A 1942 Iowa study found girls performing better than boys on tests of reading comprehension, vocabulary, and basic language skills.  Girls have outscored boys on every reading test ever given by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—the first long term trend test was administered in 1971—at ages nine, 13, and 17.  The gap is not confined to the U.S.  Reading tests administered as part of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) reveal that the gender gap is a worldwide phenomenon.  In more than sixty countries participating in the two assessments, girls are better readers than boys.

Perhaps the most surprising finding is that Finland, celebrated for its extraordinary performance on PISA for over a decade, can take pride in its high standing on the PISA reading test solely because of the performance of that nation’s young women.  With its 62 point gap, Finland has the largest gender gap of any PISA participant, with girls scoring 556 and boys scoring 494 points (the OECD average is 496, with a standard deviation of 94).   If Finland were only a nation of young men, its PISA ranking would be mediocre.

Part II: Measuring Effects of the Common Core is about reading achievement, too. More specifically, it’s about reading and the English Language Arts standards of the Common Core (CCSS-ELA).

The analysis investigates whether CCSS-ELA implementation is related to 2009-2013 gains on the fourth grade NAEP reading test.  The analysis cannot verify causal relationships between the two variables, only correlations.  States that have aggressively implemented CCSS-ELA (referred to as “strong” implementers in the study) evidence a one to one and one-half point larger gain on the NAEP scale compared to non-adopters of the standards.  This association is similar in magnitude to an advantage found in a study of eighth grade math achievement in last year’s BCR.  Although positive, these effects are quite small.  When the 2015 NAEP results are released this winter, it will be important for the fate of the Common Core project to see if strong implementers of the CCSS-ELA can maintain their momentum.

Part three is on student engagement.  PISA tests fifteen-year-olds on three subjects—reading, math, and science—every three years.  It also collects a wealth of background information from students, including their attitudes toward school and learning.  When the 2012 PISA results were released, PISA analysts published an accompanying volume, Ready to Learn: Students’ Engagement, Drive, and Self-Beliefs, exploring topics related to student engagement.

Part three provides secondary analysis of several dimensions of engagement found in the PISA report.  Intrinsic motivation, the internal rewards that encourage students to learn, is an important component of student engagement.  National scores on PISA’s index of intrinsic motivation to learn mathematics are compared to national PISA math scores.  Surprisingly, the relationship is negative.  Countries with highly motivated kids tend to score lower on the math test; conversely, higher-scoring nations tend to have less-motivated kids.

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