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Retooling Literacy Education for the Twenty-First Century: Key Findings of the Reading for Understanding Initiative and Their Implications


It would truly be difficult to overstate the importance of reading literacy proficiency. That's because it is fundamental to enabling individuals to learn about nearly all other topics—during their school years and throughout life. Without adequate reading and comprehension skills, an individual's ability to pursue his or her field(s) of interest, to become and remain self-sufficient, and to engage productively in society are greatly curtailed. For instance, the ability to read, comprehend, and analyze complex texts is directly connected to life outcomes including educational attainment, dropping out of school, wage earnings, incarceration, and even quality of health.1

Unfortunately, the United States has been falling short of our national aspiration that all students achieve reading comprehension skills sufficient for today's societal and workplace demands. Over the past seven years, states have taken steps to address this problem by adopting more rigorous reading/literacy standards aligned to college and career readiness2 and by investing additional resources in teacher training. Despite these actions and the efforts of many dedicated educators, state, national, and international indicators show very little growth in reading performance, as illustrated by results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP®; Figure 1).3

Figure 1: Trends in 4th- and 8th-Grade NAEP Average Reading Scores

Trend in fourth-grade NAEP reading average scores

Figure 1

Trend in eighth-grade NAEP reading average scores

Figure 1b

The results of the national report card are even more disturbing when one considers how we are doing in educating underserved and vulnerable subpopulations. There remains a significant gap in achievement, with Asian and White students scoring significantly higher than African-Americans, Latino, and Native American students. There are also significant, persistent gaps between native and nonnative speakers. Furthermore, there are significant gaps based on socioeconomic status— differences that may be increasing over time.

Not only are there wide disparities in reading achievement within our country, but we are simultaneously falling behind much of the rest of the developed world due to other nations' faster rates of improvement. The Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), a large-scale international assessment of adults ages 16-65, developed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), assesses reading literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving in technology-rich environments. For instance, U.S. adults rank 16th in literacy, with only 7 of the 23 participating countries ranking lower.4 Further, secondary analysis shows that our young adults (ages 16-24) are falling even further behind (18th), suggesting that the more recent products of our education system are not keeping pace with international counterparts.5 This conclusion is further bolstered by the results of the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). In sum, while much of the developed world is keeping pace with twenty-first-century literacy demands, the United States is lagging in many areas.


1 Irwin Kirsch, Henry Braun, Kentaro Yamamoto, and Andrew Sum, America's Perfect Storm: Three Forces Changing Our Nation's Future (Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 2007); Stephanie S. Daniel, Adam K. Walsh, David B. Goldston, Elizabeth M. Arnold, and Beth A. Reboussin, "Suicidality, School Dropout, and Reading Problems Among Adolescents," Journal of Learning Disabilities 39, no. 6 (2006): 507-514, doi:10.1177/00222194060390060301; William Carbonaro, "Cross-National Differences in the Skills-Earnings Relationship: The Role of Labor Market Institutions," Social Forces 84, no. 3 (2006): 1819-1842,; Pamela J. Harris, Heather M. Baltodano, Aydin Bal, Kristine Jolivette, and Candace Malcahy, "Reading Achievement of Incarcerated Youth in Three Regions," Journal of Correctional Education 60, no. 2 (2009): 120-145,; David W. Baker, Ruth M. Parker, Mark V. Williams, W. Scott Clark, and Joanne Nurss, "The Relationship of Patient Reading Ability to Self-Reported Health and Use of Health Services," American Journal of Public Health 87, no. 6 (1997): 1027-1030.

2 National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers, Common Core State Standards: College and Career Readiness Standards for Reading, Writing and Communication (Washington, DC: National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010).

3 NAEP is not aligned to college- and career-readiness standards and may therefore not align with student performance as compared to state tests. The NAEP Validity Studies Panel currently has studies underway to better understand the differences in content and performance between NAEP and state tests designed to measure college- and career-readiness standards. These studies are expected to be published in 2018; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Results from PISA 2012, United States (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2013),

4 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2013), .

5 Madeline Goodman, Robert Finnegan, Leyla Mohadjer, Tom Krenzke, Jacquie Hogan, Eugene Owen, and Stephen Provasnik, Literacy, Numeracy, and Problem Solving in Technology-Rich Environments among U.S. Adults: Results from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies 2012, NCES 2014-008 (Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, 2013).