Minorities Gain but Still Lag in Reading Skills

Times Staff Writer

Black and Latino schoolchildren have made significant gains in basic reading skills during the last 14 years but still lag considerably behind white students, according to a government-funded report released Wednesday.

And although the study’s primary finding was that American students in general are reading better today than they were in 1971, most of this progress has been made on the lower end of the reading scale. Indeed, the report showed that the increase in the percentage of students with higher-level reading abilities has slowed considerably in recent years.

Not Yet Nation of Readers

“We are not at present raising a nation of illiterates. . . . We are on our way to becoming a nation of readers, but we are not there, yet,” said Education Secretary William J. Bennett, discussing the results at a news conference.

Although the study found that most students have basic reading skills, Bennett noted that 17-year-old minority students are, on the average, reading at the level of 13-year-old white students, a finding he called “a grave national problem.”

The report, conducted by the federally funded National Assessment of Educational Progress, also found that children who watch television six or more hours a day had lower reading skills than students who watched less.


“These results come as no surprise. . . . They compound my dismay about the condition of our schools,” said Dennis Gray, deputy director for the Council on Basic Education, a Washington-based public interest group. “I don’t see how we can expect our democracy to survive if our public schools continue to turn out marginally literate students.”

Dr. Jeanne Chall, a professor of education at Harvard University, said she felt that “children, on the whole, have been doing better. But what is very sad and a great challenge is that minority children are not doing well. We have to find ways to reduce this distance between minority and non-minority children.”

Reading Skills Measured

The study, considered by many educational experts to be the most comprehensive of its kind, measured the reading skills of 250,000 9-, 13- and 17-year-olds and then rated the sample according to ethnic background, geography and other factors.

Blacks and Latinos registered the sharpest gains, especially in the last 10 years, while white students showed modest increases. The improvement was fairly equal in all regions of the nation, according to the study.

For example, the number of black nine-year-olds who cannot perform even rudimentary reading tasks has shrunk from 30% to 16% since 1975. Similarly, the number of Latino 17-year-olds with intermediate reading skills--or the equivalent of functional literacy--has grown 13 percentage points in the last 10 years.

Gap Between Students

In all cases, however,white students showed stronger reading abilities than minorities, and the gap between them is a “continuing national problem,” according to Archie E. Lapointe, executive director of the National Assessment on Educational Progress.

For example, only 60% of the 13-year-olds surveyed had intermediate reading skills, a level at which they could read and answer questions about a brief written history of basketball. More than two-thirds of the white students had this skill, yet only one-third of the minority students showed such proficiency.

On the higher end of the reading scale, fewer than half of the 17-year-olds had “adept” reading skills, which means the ability to understand, summarize and explain relatively complicated information, according to the report.

More than 45% of the white 17-year-olds had those skills, compared to 18% of black students and 20% of Latino students.

Taken as a whole, this finding means that a majority of American students are “probably having trouble (understanding) school books and are one year away from voting on important social issues,” Lapointe said.

Researchers conceded that the overall results for 17-year-olds are probably even lower, since the report did not measure the reading skills of school dropouts. Lapointe said it is a “reasonable assumption” that those individuals have even lower reading abilities.

Some Progress

On the bright side, the study showed progress among all groups on the lower end of the reading scales. Most of the 17-year-olds, for example, could understand simple, five-paragraph stories and answer several multiple-choice questions about them.

This may suggest that the current focus on “back to basics” educational programs--which stress reading fundamentals--has begun to pay off for many children, Lapointe said.

Chall also theorized that such progress reflects the increased federal and state funding for inner-city schools during the last 15 years.

In other findings, the report determined that too much television can retard a child’s reading ability. Researchers found that youngsters who watch six or more hours of television each day had lower reading skills.

The problem is especially serious among 9-year-olds, because 27% reported watching more than six hours of television each day. Based on survey projections, that works out to 828,000 children nationwide, Lapointe said.