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State outpaces nation in vocab tests

Colorado’s fourth- and eighth-graders outscored the national average in vocabulary, according to 2009 and 2011 national assessment results released Thursday.

The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report card focuses on how well students are able to use words to gain meaning from the passages they read. Although previous NAEP reading assessments included vocabulary questions, the 2009 assessment was redesigned to provide a new, systematic way of measuring and reporting how students’ understanding of word meanings in the context of the passage affects reading comprehension.

The report, Vocabulary Results from the 2009 and 2011 NAEP Reading Assessments, includes state- and national-level vocabulary results from 2009 and 2011 for fourth- and eighth-graders. NAEP tests are given to representative samples of students, not all students in states.

The average national score for eighth-graders was 263 in 2011 and 2009. Colorado eighth-graders’ average score in 2011 was 270, up from 267 in 2009. White and black students in Colorado also scored higher than the national average. But the results from Colorado’s Hispanic students and those who qualify for free and reduced price lunch, an indicator of poverty, more closely matched the national averages.

As for the state’s fourth-graders, they also outscored the national average in their vocabulary skills. Colorado’s fourth-graders scored 222 in 2011, down from 225 in 2009; compared to the national fourth-grade vocabulary score of 217 in both 2012 and 2009. Similar to the eighth-grade results, Colorado’s Hispanic students scored the same or lower than the national average in word recognition and understanding.

“Although Colorado again outscored the nation at both fourth and eighth grade in the vocabulary results…the stagnation of overall scores from 2009, as well as the persistent achievement gaps between the racial/ethnic groups, remain troublesome,” said Joyce Zurkowski, executive director of assessment at the Colorado Department of Education.

“These results are consistent with what we have seen with other assessment results. Improving the achievement of all students, especially our students from historically disadvantaged groups, must be a priority within our schools.”

Vocabulary, comprehension relationship

Nationwide, there was a consistent relationship between performance on vocabulary and performance on reading comprehension.

In 2011, fourth- and eighth-grade students performing above the 75th percentile in reading comprehension also had the highest average vocabulary scores. Lower-performing students at or below the 25th percentile had the lowest average vocabulary scores.

Pennsylvania was the only state in which students scored higher in 2011 than they did in 2009.

“Without a strong vocabulary, any child’s ability to read and to learn suffers dramatically,” said David Driscoll, chair of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP. “Helping students improve their vocabulary and use words in the proper context is essential to improving overall reading ability – especially for students who most need to improve.”

Both the NAEP reading comprehension and vocabulary questions are reported on 0-500 point scales that are designed to allow vocabulary performance to be reported separately and be compared across student groups and states.

Rather than presenting words in isolation, NAEP’s focus on vocabulary acknowledges that key distinctions and nuances of word meaning arise in the context of particular reading passages. Each vocabulary question asks how a particular word contributes meaning to all or part of the reading passage in which it appears. In this example test question on page 14 of the report, eighth-grade students were asked to interpret the meaning of the word “permeated” as used in a passage:

On page 1, the author says that mint syrup permeated the shaved ice. This means that the mint syrup 
A: caused the shaved ice to melt slightly
 B: formed the shaved ice into clumps 
C: spread all the way through the shaved ice
 D: made the shaved ice taste better

Fifty-one percent of eighth graders correctly selected answer C.

Nationally, females scored higher on average than males at grades four and eight in 2011. Colorado’s female students matched that trend.

Of fourth-graders nationally, 33 percent of students scoring below the 25th percentile were white, 25 percent were black, and 35 were Hispanic. Of students scoring above the 75th percentile, 72 percent were white, 7 percent were black, and 10 percent were Hispanic. Of the nation’s eighth-graders, gaps between white and Hispanic students narrowed from 30 points to 28 points from 2009 to 2011, and this narrowing was observed at the 10th and 25th percentiles. English language learners in the 25th and 50th percentiles scored higher in 2011 than in 2009.

“Persistent achievement gaps between students of different racial, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds need to be a focus of improvement for educators, policymakers and the public,” Driscoll said. “There is still a great deal of work that needs to be done to enhance the vocabulary understanding, and reading ability, of all students.”

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