WASHINGTON -- For the first time in almost a decade, American students are starting to read better: High school seniors show the biggest improvement, but even younger children are catching up, the Education Department said Wednesday.
The nation's students had been lagging in reading, even as their math and science scores advanced.
"Reading is the starting point for all learning," Vice President Al Gore said as he announced reading scores from the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a set of federally mandated tests.
"All of the excitement about the information superhighway is for naught if the words on the screen are incomprehensible," Mr. Gore said.
On the tests, a random group of pupils at three grade levels -- fourth, eighth and 12th -- had to read and answer questions about works ranging from poetry to a 1040EZ income tax form.
Many educators point out that, despite improvement, an alarming number of U.S. schoolchildren still cannot read at a basic grade level.
"We live in an age drenched in media and information, but many of our children can't read," said Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa.
Students have gained steadily in NAEP math and science scores since about 1980, after declines in the 1970s. The first NAEP reading test was given in 1971, but content and scoring were changed in 1992. During the 1970s and '80s, reading scores fluctuated only slightly, unlike the decreases throughout most of the 1990s and this year's increase.
Although he has not seen the report, Richmond County Deputy School Superintendent Gene Sullivan was enthusiastic about the news.
"That's good news. We, like everybody else in the country, are putting an emphasis on reading level. Kids need to be up to the appropriate reading level by the third grade," he said.
Aiken County School Superintendent Linda Eldridge said higher test scores reflect the rebirth of phonics and heavy concentration in early childhood programs.
South Carolina's efforts to enact full-day kindergarten will pay off, she said. And after years of preaching the importance of reading to children, parents are finally taking heed.
"After many years, there is an appreciation for reading, and parents are realizing that reading is the basis for everything in a child's life," Dr. Eldridge said.
Despite a rise in their test scores, poor, inner-city and minority children still scored lower on average than other children.
And children who spent more time reading with their families and less time watching television still scored better than other students.
In the reading test, pupils at fourth-, eighth- and 12th-grade levels are tested about every two to four years through a national sample of about 31,000 public and private school students. The most recent previous reading test was in 1994, before that 1992.
The reading test includes multiple-choice questions and requires pupils to write responses in their own words ranging from a sentence or two to more than a paragraph. It measures a student's ability to read for literary experience, to gain information and to perform a task.