New Alliance Brief Calls for Greater Federal Role to Confront Literacy Crisis in Middle and High Schools

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    WASHINGTON, DC – Without a consistent commitment to delivering comprehensive reading and writing instruction throughout the pre-K–12 grade span, many low-income students and students of color will remain sidelined from full participation in the modern workplace, warns a new policy brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education. The brief, The Federal Role in Confronting the Crisis in Adolescent Literacy, notes that Congress has dedicated substantial funds to improving reading skills of students in kindergarten through grade three, but this targeted investment has not resulted in the ultimate goal of preparing students to succeed in college and careers.

    “The nation’s approach to teaching reading is analogous to a builder laying the foundation of a house, but not following through to assist with the walls, windows, doors, and roof,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “America’s students are getting help they need to become proficient readers in the early grades. Unfortunately they are not being supported in building vocabulary and comprehension skills needed to master the more complex materials they will encounter in middle and high school across all of their classes.”


    According to the brief—made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York—substantial research shows that around grade four students must move from learning to read to reading to learn as they encounter increasingly complex subject-matter material. Without ongoing content-area literacy support, however, many students lose ground because they lack the background knowledge and reading strategies necessary to comprehend the challenging concepts introduced in middle and high school.

    This literacy problem affects many students, particularly low-income students and students of color. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 70 percent of eighth-grade students score below the “proficient” level in reading achievement. For students of color and low-income students, the figures are even more disturbing as only 14 percent of African American, 17 percent of Hispanic, and 21 percent of Native American eighth graders score at or above the proficient level. When students cannot understand or evaluate text, provide relevant details, or support inferences about the written documents they read, they will likely be relegated to the ranks of unskilled workers in a world where literacy is an absolute precondition for success, the brief argues.

    The brief also notes that the individual student is not the only one affected. Limited progress in improving literacy achievement of middle and high school students has “seriously compromised” the nation’s international standing and capacity to compete globally. Although students in grade four score among the best in the world in reading achievement, by grade ten U.S. students have placed close to the bottom among developed nations. During the last thirty-seven years, the literacy performance of thirteen- and seventeen-year-olds on NAEP has remained consistently low, with nearly six million of the twenty-two million American secondary students struggling to read and write.

    The brief also highlights “extraordinary variability” in the number of students struggling to read both within and across states. For example, even if a state performs well on NAEP overall, a difference of nearly 25 percentage points exists between the percentage of white eighth graders and that of eighth graders in the state’s largest minority group scoring at the basic level. Partial blame for this lack of consistency on the level of performance students are expected to demonstrate lies with the No Child Left Behind Act, which permitted each state to develop its own standards, tests, and definition of proficiency. As a result, students with the same achievement levels might be considered proficient in one state but not in another.

    Efforts are underway to bring more consistency across states. As evidence, the brief points to the Common Core State Standards for English language arts, led by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices. These common standards provide a much-needed shared understanding of the essential literacy skills graduates need to succeed in college and the twenty-first-century workplace, and when paired with aligned assessments, can raise the level of literacy achievement for all students.

    The federal government has also recognized the critical need to improve adolescent literacy by establishing the Striving Readers grant program, which supports literacy interventions in the upper grades. However, the program currently operates in only eight sites—six large school districts, one consortium of multiple rural districts, and one statewide education system for students in the juvenile justice system.

    According to the brief, the pending reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—currently known as No Child Left Behind—offers the federal government the opportunity to invest fully in comprehensive literacy initiatives to ensure that all students graduate from high school prepared with the advanced literacy skills necessary to succeed in college and careers. It offers four solutions to ensure that all students have the reading and comprehension skills needed to succeed in the modern world:

    • Support the state-led adoption and implementation of common English language arts standards and aligned assessments that integrate literacy skills throughout subject areas.
    • Support states and districts in developing comprehensive literacy plans for all students.
    • Encourage states to strengthen teacher education and licensure through the design of performance-based systems that ensure that teachers acquire competencies in literacy instruction.
    • Invest in ongoing research and evaluation, particularly to provide more definitive guidance on programs for English learners, identify evidence-based instructional strategies, and evaluate approaches for improving teaching effectiveness.


    The complete brief is available at

    The Alliance for Excellent Education is a Washington, DC-based national policy and advocacy organization that works to improve national and federal policy so that all students can achieve at high academic levels and graduate from high school ready for success in college, work, and citizenship in the twenty-first century. For more information about the Alliance for Excellent Education, please visit