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November 2019
Curbing America’s Reading Crisis: A Call to Action for Our Children

Tenaha O'Reilly, Anita Sands, Zuowei Wang, Kelsey Dreier and John Sabatini

For Many, Expectations on Mastery of Reading Skills Are Unmet

Foundational reading skills for the most part are no longer in the reading standards after fifth grade. That's when students are expected to have mastered the basic mechanics of how to read and be ready to focus on comprehending passages. However, are students generally ready to make that transition?

A policy report by researchers from the ETS Center for Research on Human Capital and Education says the answer for many is probably not. Considering that children who struggle to read face potential consequences that can last a lifetime — including higher dropout and incarceration rates, and poorer self-reported health — changing how we assess and teach reading is critical.

Data from the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), better known as The Nation's Report Card, shows that little more than one-third of fourth-graders score proficient or higher in reading, with minority and urban students disproportionately affected.

Furthermore, students in some of America's large urban districts perform drastically below the national average. At the bottom of the list is Detroit, where only seven percent of fourth-graders perform at or above proficient. Results are similar for eighth-graders.

Percentage of Students Classified as Proficient on the 2019 NAEP Reading Assessment by Trial Urban
District Assessment (TUDA District) and Grade Level

Student Proficiency

Source: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Educational Statistics, NAEP Data Explorer (NDE)

Authors Tenaha O'Reilly, Anita Sands, Zuowei Wang, Kelsey Dreier, and John Sabatini dive into the complex mechanics of foundational reading ("getting the words off the page") and how deficiencies in these areas can affect reading comprehension ("what the text is about"). They also discuss the important role of background knowledge in reading ability and show that students who lack necessary background knowledge may fail to comprehend text altogether. In short, students lacking sufficient decoding ability or knowledge relevant to the text may fall below a critical threshold, struggling with comprehension as a result. What's more, they could fall into a maladaptive cycle of reading where poor comprehension leads to reduced self-confidence and reading avoidance, leaving them at risk in a society that demands increasing levels of 21st-century reading and critical thinking.

To help curb America's reading crisis, the authors offer actionable recommendations for policymakers and educators, including the following:

  • Continue to measure and monitor foundational reading skills after Grade 4 so that weaknesses can be detected and teachers can provide better help.
  • Allow for the development of summative assessments of reading that also support learning, providing tasks that follow good instructional practices and model effective reading.
  • Provide relevant and familiar texts (including nonacademic ones) and reading activities so students understand more, gain confidence, and are more likely to read and improve their skill over time.

Curbing America's Reading Crisis: A Call to Action for Our Children



Tenaha O'Reilly, Anita Sands, Zuowei Wang, Kelsey Dreier and John Sabatini

Publication Date

November 2019

The ETS Center for Research on Human Capital and Education

Produces high-quality, evidence-based research that explores critical issues impacting opportunity in America today.

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