CHICAGO -- When the Nation's Report Card for grade school math and reading was released last week, the adjectives describing the overall lack of upward momentum in reading scores were: lackluster, flat, stagnant and stalled. It's too bad there aren't better words to depict the students' struggle to keep up in the face of difficult circumstances.
Even so, the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that fourth- and eighth-grade students posted their highest scores to date in math since 1990. Reading was a different story. Only one-third of all students demonstrated proficient, or higher, levels in reading.
There were some small achievements, however.
Overall, the ability of fourth-graders to read informational text and literature was unchanged from 2009, the last time reading was assessed. Notable, though, is that when broken out into groups that were either not eligible for free lunch or were eligible for reduced or free lunch, the fourth-graders scored two hard-won points higher than in 2009.
The eighth-graders also scored one to two points higher this year than in 2009, with lower performing, low income, and racial and ethnic group students making slightly greater gains overall since 1992.
But even these tiny gains are worth celebrating since getting students to read well is such a major struggle involving many factors both at home and in the classroom.
First, we know that the educational attainment level of public school students' parents and their assistance in ensuring their kids' academic success play the biggest roles. But not all well-educated parents spend time reading to or with their young children or consistently model reading for pleasure at home. And many parents who have the desire to support their children have little to offer when challenging literature is part of a student's homework.
While math is usually accessible to most parents at the elementary grade level, countless parents have difficulty helping their students with reading-based tasks -- a challenge compounded by the erratic way in which students from homes where more than one language is spoken are treated when it comes to English-language instruction.
This past February, a national network of more than 250 private and public funding organizations called Grantmakers for Education released "Investing in Our Next Generation," a report noting that more than one in 10 pre-kindergarten to 12th-grade students in the U.S. - more than 5.3 million -- are classified as English Language Learners.
This is the most rapidly growing group of students in our nation's schools, 75 percent of whom, at the elementary school level, are either second-generation or third-generation U.S. citizens. Many of them are enrolled in suburban and rural school districts that have little experience educating English Language Learners. Regardless of their geography, the students are instructed through a hodgepodge of second-language programs ranging from English immersion to all-day instruction in the student's native language, and nearly everything in between.
Mainstream reading instruction is no better in terms of consistency. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that there are thousands of different ways that reading is taught in schools across this country. In any given school building, there are a number of different teaching philosophies and methods used to teach reading, usually in addition to a packaged schoolwide literacy program.
Although nearly every state has adopted the Common Core State Standards for English, language arts and literacy, there are no best-practice benchmarks for teaching them. When educational philosophy began emphasizing the needs of individual students instead of basing classwide instruction on expectations of how pupils should be able to perform at a given grade level, it became understood that there are many ways children learn to read -- and that it's OK to have as many methods of teaching them.
In many teacher preparation programs, only educators who are aiming to go into schools as reading specialists get more in-depth teaching instruction than the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink literacy methods courses that regular classroom teachers take.
Hopefully this disorganized approach to teaching reading will soon gain some focus. During a news conference to discuss these just-released scores, officials from the National Center for Education Statistics said that because there is no substantive body of evidence on what actually increases reading scores, they took on the research project. It is under way and expected to be completed in 2015.
The results can't come soon enough. Amazingly, reading is holding its own despite the many challenges public schools are up against. But though we should appreciate the steady performance, there's definitely opportunity for improvement.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at email@example.com.