More than half of all fourth graders in the nation don’t know what the word “prestigious” means when they read it in a story. Same goes for the words flourish, barren and eerie.A majority of eighth graders, meanwhile, get hung up on the word “urbane” and less than half of high school seniors can recognize the meaning of the word delusion.That, according to officials who conducted a nationwide vocabulary test, is troubling.
“We expect them to know all of those words,” said Margaret McKeown, a University of Pittsburgh professor who helped put together the nation’s first vocabulary assessment.
Released Thursday, the vocabulary test was a subset of a National Assessment of Educational Progress reading comprehension test given to a representative sample of 264,500 students across the country in both public and private schools in 2009 and 382,300 students in 2011.
The results report out average scores on a 500 point scale that don’t change much between 2009 and 2011 for fourth and eighth graders. In 2012, fourth graders, nationwide, scored a 218 and eighth graders scored a 265.
NAEP officials have not determined what number they would deem “proficient” on that scale.
In Connecticut, among public schools, the scores were higher than the national public school average in both fourth grade — 223 — and eighth grade — 275 — but remained somewhat flat between 2009 and 2011.
Connecticut was also one of 11 states to participate in the 12th grade vocabularty test that was given only in 2009. The national public average was 294, whilc Connecticut seniors scored a 300.
Deidre Ducharme, an educational consultant for the state Department of Education called vocabulary key to reading comprehension and building strong content knowledge. “If instruction guides students to focus on the words that matter most within texts across content areas and disciplines, learning will become much deeper and more meaningful,” said Ducharme. “Ultimately, emphasis on vocabulary will enhance students’ speaking, reading and writing skills for multiple purposes and audiences.”
Still, the achievement gap that persists in reading and math scores in Connecticut is also evident in vocabulary scores. In the fourth grade, the average score for white students in 2011 was 235. Black and Hispanic students both scored 198. In the eighth grade, the average 2011 Connecticut score was 287 for white students, 250 for black students and 244 for Hispanic students.
Jack Buckley, commissioner of National Center for Education Statistic, said the multiple choice test did not ask students to define given words, but instead asked them to determine meanings of words in a given passage.
So when fourth graders read that two boys were “puzzled” when they couldn’t find something, they had to determine that the boys were “confused.”
Cornelia Orr, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, said although some words have multiple meanings the test was not designed to trick students. “You should understand we don’t put any item on the test but those we expect students to get right.”
McKeown said the results are cause for concern but are not surprising.
“Vocabulary is something that holds kids back in reading,” she said.
Schools need to do more to helps students make sense of what they read, not just memorize definitions.