Research on Reading/Learning Disability Interventions
Richard L. Allington
Recent educational reforms have muddied the waters when it comes to considering the conceptualization of reading and learning difficulties. Various recent proposals and actions seem to substantially expand the numbers of children deemed to be making unsatisfactory progress in developing reading proficiency. Observe the political rhetoric—all children reading on grade level by grade 4—and recent legislative mandates—establishing grade-level reading achievement standards for promotion to the next grade. Even taking into account the richness of political rhetoric, such reform goals represent a substantial shift in educational policy. For most of the 20th century it was expected that half of children would, necessarily, read at some level below “grade level,” whereas half would read above “grade level.” This was, of course, the result of defining “grade level” psychometrically as the average achievement of the children in any given grade. With grade level defined as the average performance, getting everyone on or above grade level means getting everyone on or above average—a mathematical impossibility. Nonetheless, legislative calls for all children reading on grade level abound. So how is it that so many policymakers seem not to understand the fundamental flaw in their proposals? What implications will such proposals have for the traditional conceptualizations of reading difficulties?
Basic to understanding the current confusion about achievement levels is the history of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the shift in reporting NAEP achievement from a relative standard—how students performed on an administration of the test relative to their performance on previous administrations—to reporting achievement of an absolute standard—how many students achieve a particular level of performance set a priori as the desired achievement level. Thus, the reports of NAEP performance have moved from generally positive during the early years of the assessment program—students are reading better than they used to—to largely negative reports more recently—too few students meet the established absolute standard.
However, the NAEP performances show no absolute decline in reading achievement across its 30-year history (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). In fact, at grade 4, reading achievement is at an all-time high, with a pattern of steady gains in achievement since 1990 (Hoff & Manzo, 1999). Still, about 40% of all fourth-grade students are reported having reading achievement that fell below the “basic” level of desired performance (the “basic” level is a predetermined absolute performance level). This suggests that the absolute standard set for the NAEP “basic” achievement level closely approximates what had been “grade level” achievement for most of the 20th century. That is, with a little more than half the students above and a little less than half below the “basic” level, that level seems to represent something similar to the average achievement level that had been the relative standard for most of the 20th century. Whether the average achievement of fourth graders on the NAEP is too low or whether the NAEP absolute standard is too high is a political question, not a research issue, per se. However, U.S. fourth graders ranked among the best readers in the world in the most recent international assessments of reading proficiency (Elley, 1992). This performance suggests that, at least compared with the international competition, U.S. elementary schools are producing children who read reasonably well (although the U.S. student ranking declines steadily after fourth grade).
This seems necessary as an introduction to any chapter on research into reading difficulties, because the media and the political discourse often suggests that large numbers of U.S. children are failing to learn to read (e.g., Sweet, 1997). However, the accumulated evidence indicates a very different situation (Berliner & Biddle, 1996; 89">Rothstein, 1998), at least when considered in historic, relative terms. At the same time, setting the new absolute NAEP “basic” standard at a level achieved by little more than half the students and setting the “proficient” standard at a level currently achieved by roughly one quarter of U.S. students created both an impression that U.S. students are not achieving at sufficiently high levels and the possibility that many more children might be identified as experiencing difficulties in reading acquisition. The use of new and higher standards of adequacy and the practice of attaching high stakes to those standards (e.g., retention in grade for those failing to achieve the standard, mandating summer school programs for such children, limiting local control when many children fall below the standard, etc.) will undoubtedly influence how reading difficulties are conceived and, possibly, redefined.
Allington, R.L. (2002).
Research on Reading/Learning Disability Interventions.
In A.E. Farstrup, & S. Samuels (Eds.), What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction (pp. 261-290). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.