December 6, 2012

Maine students score above average in vocabulary testing, but best teaching methods aren't being used, national report claims

By Susan McMillan
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- Maine students scored higher than the national average on the first national report card for vocabulary released Thursday, but experts say the best strategies for teaching vocabulary have not reached most classrooms.

In addition, there were large achievement gaps across income levels and racial and ethnic groups in the results from the first-ever vocabulary report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a set of national standardized tests often called "the nation's report card."

With a scaled score topping out at 500, Maine eighth-graders averaged 270, compared to a national average of 263.

Maine fourth-grade students in 2011 averaged a score of 219, barely above the national average of 217. The report said the difference was not statistically significant.

Maine was not among the 11 states where 12th-graders took the test. Their national average score was 294.

Maine ranked fifth out of the six New England states for both fourth and eighth grades. At both grade levels, Rhode Island had the lowest average score and Massachusetts the highest.

The scores are based on students' answers to questions on the reading portion of the test. Vocabulary has long been a part of the test, but this is the first time results have been reported separately.

Vocabulary is receiving new emphasis as part of literacy because of recent research showing its vital role in reading comprehension and its need for dedicated attention even before kindergarten.

"To some degree, we almost took it for granted that kids would just pick up these words on their own or incidentally," said Lee Anne Larsen, literacy specialist for the Maine Department of Education. "And that is one of the things that the research has been pretty clear about. Yes, we do learn a lot of words incidentally; but we do not learn all of our words that way, and we will learn a lot more if we engage in some direct instruction around vocabulary."

Maine's Learning Results -- the statewide standards for schools -- mention vocabulary only briefly. However, Larsen said, the new Common Core national standards include an entire section on vocabulary development and also incorporate it into other aspects of literacy: reading, writing, listening and speaking.

Francie Alexander, chief academic officer for Scholastic Education, said on a news media call Thursday that students need to learn 65,000 to 75,000 words during their education but will encounter only about 10,000 words in everyday speech.

The questions on the National Assessment of Educational Progress were designed to test students on so-called "Tier II" or "academic" words. They are more common in written rather than spoken language, apply across subject areas and often have multiple meanings.

Students answered multiple-choice questions to show whether they could determine the meaning of a word within the context of a passage and understand the word's contribution to the meaning of the overall passage.

In fourth grade, most students understood the meaning of the word "estimate" in context, but even students scoring in the 90th percentile were likely to answer questions about "prestigious" and "barren" wrong.

In eighth grade, "motivate" and "specialty" were the most commonly understood words, while "urbane" challenged even the top scorers in both eighth grade and 12th grade.

Unlike the reading and mathematics results, the vocabulary results were not reported in terms of achievement levels such as "basic," "proficient" and "advanced."

Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said in the media call that people wanting to gauge students' performance could look at a few different measures. They include the trend in vocabulary scores over time, the achievement gaps between different groups, or the words that students scoring at different percentiles were likely to understand.

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