MARK D. MUSICK greeted the 1998 national assessment scores last year with an optimistic prediction that reading performance across the nation would improve quickly. If that didn't happen, said the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, he'd be "surprised and disappointed," because there was so much interest in reading improvement in so many places.
Musick was in Baltimore on Wednesday, a few days after release of the 1999 scores. "At the moment, I'm surprised and disappointed," he said.
Reading scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) - a test given periodically for nearly three decades to a sampling of 9-, 13- and 17-year-olds across the nation- remained steady or dropped last year. (State-by-state scores for 1999 haven't been published.)
More disappointing to Musick and other officials is that in a study of long-term NAEP results, the disparity between black and white performance, which had narrowed in the 1980s, widened in the 1990s for 13- and 17-year-olds and ended the decade the same for 9-year-olds.
In fact, among 9-year-olds. the black-white disparity -35 points last year-was the same as it was 24 years before. It grew by 6 points between 1996 and 1999. Among older students, 17-year-old blacks in 1999 were reading at roughly the level of 13-year-old whites.
Only in 1971, the first year in which NAEP measured reading, was there a wider point spread between black and white 9-year-olds, according to the study.
Federal officials were at a loss to explain the disturbing trend. They quickly pointed out that things were worse 29 years ago. And Musick was in Baltimore to tell the state school board that Maryland is a leader among the 16 Southern and border states covered by the Southern Regional Education Board, an interstate compact of which he is president.
But an inescapable conclusion is that, despite the efforts of so many, American schools are far from achieving racial parity.
NAEP hasn't changed much in three decades. Pupils read material ranging from simple narrative passages to complex articles on specialized topics, then answer questions in a multiple-choice or brief written format.
Perhaps the scores have been influenced over time by the influx of Hispanic children to California, someone at the state board meeting suggested. Musick speculated that high school kids in 2000 are less motivated than 17-year-olds of a generation ago to do well on a test in which they have no stake:
But NAEP officials take pride in testing a "representative" sample of students. In theory, the 10 administrations of the reading test since 1971 shouldn't have been skewed by demographic trends such as Hispanic migration or urban poverty.
One group, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, went so far as to call the disparities "unAmerican." Howard Fuller, former Milwaukee superintendent and leader of the alliance, a new, provoucher organization, said Thursday that his group "declares war on a ... condition where access to elementary and secondary education is a function of income and race"
Schools and cities prove the gap can be c1osed. Musick said Houston, which has a poor system with thousands of Hispanic students, has put heavy emphasis on reading.
Closing the gap will take determination and leadership, and "It will be slow and painstaking," said Michael E. Hickey, former Howard County superintendent who is heading a new center for education leadership at Towson University.
Two years ago, when Howard's scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests were the highest in the state, Hickey refused to gloat, saying he could take satisfaction only when Baltimore scores were the equal of Howard's. He still feels that way, Hickey said last week. Everyone has a rationalization for the failure of poor and urban schools to deliver, he said. "Turning them around won't happen until every teacher and administrator and superintendent believes every kid is capable of learning. The answer is in the heart and soul."
Here are some other findings from the long-term NAEP study:
* The black-white gap is more pronounced among children whose parents have education beyond high school.
* Among females, only 13-year-olds showed a significant increase over the 10 NAEP reading tests.
* Among nonpublic school students in all age groups, reading scores have been flat since NAEP started testing them in 1980.
* The number of types of reading materials in the home has decreased at all three ages since 1971.
* A smaller percentage of 9 - and 13-year-olds are watching three or more hours of television each day than in 1978.