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.”

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”