U.S. defines significant differently than most; Report: The Education Department sees slight gains in 1998 reading scores as meaningful because of a high probability that the change is real, not a statistical fluke.


WHEN IS A four-point gain on a scale of 500 considered "significant"?

When you're the Clinton administration releasing the "report card" for the 1998 national assessment of reading achievement.

Average scores for fourth-graders on the only national test of reading increased from 214 to 217 on a scale of 500. Eighth-grade scores soared from 260 to 264. Twelfth-graders jumped from 287 to 291. Significant?

When I drove to Washington on Wednesday to attend the U.S. Education Department news conference announcing the scores, I'd already seen them in a government news release trumpeting these "significant" gains. At the news conference, Vice President Al Gore pronounced the gains "not huge, but statistically significant."

Mark D. Musick, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, noted "significant movement in the right direction." (Musick, president of the Southern Regional Education Board and not a federal employee, later allowed that a third of American pupils haven't grasped the first rung of the reading achievement ladder.)

I sat at the news conference thinking that I hadn't done my homework on the meaning of "significant." Either that or the Clinton administration, which has much to gain by documenting school achievement gains from 1994 to 1998, was dressing the reading emperor in some pretty fancy new clothes.

When it came time for questions, I asked how three- and four-point gains could be considered "significant."

It turns out that statisticians do have a definition for "significant" that's different from yours and mine.

A change is considered significant if there's a high probability that it's real, not a statistical fluke. The 1998 scores were especially significant because for the first time improvement was made in all three grades tested.

Moreover, I was informed, the 500-point scale is mathematically crunched in the middle so that three- and four-point gains there are more meaningful.

A gain of 10 points represents about a school year's growth, a deputy assistant secretary said, so pupils reading at a proficient level last year gained about a third of a grade level over kids four years earlier. Thus, the clothes are real (or sort of), but the question remains: Is a third of a grade improvement significant, when so many lack basic reading skills and so few are advanced?

In Washington state, buses run with libraries on board

Just get on the bus, Gus, and open that book.

With all the time kids spend on school buses, it's about time somebody thought of making the ride a reading experience.

It started with "Books on Buses" in Tumwater, Wash. Gov. Mike Lowery had proclaimed 1997 the Year of the Reader, and bus driver Toni Earls took it to heart, stocking her bus with books.

Earls' reasoning was impeccable: Helps improve the little darlings' minds and keeps them quiet and in their seats.

Soon the program was institutionalized. It lasts six weeks at each school. Pupils can read books on the bus, check them out for home use, or check books out of the school library and read them on the bus. Thirty drivers in Tumwater are running routes with libraries on board.

Officials in Rincon Valley, Calif., north of San Francisco, heard about Tumwater and started their own Books on Bus.

"We put a tub full on each bus," Diane Moresi, assistant superintendent of curriculum, told me last month. "The drivers actually punch the kids' library cards. They love it."

Reading quote of week comes from Britain

Quote of the week: "We know how to teach children to read. We know that phonics is crucial in the first years of schooling." -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair, commenting on the "frighteningly large" lapse in reading ability in his country. More than 175,000 children left primary schools last year after failing to reach the national standard in tests.

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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