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California students score fifth from bottom in national vocabulary tests
[December 06, 2012]

California students score fifth from bottom in national vocabulary tests

Dec 06, 2012 (San Jose Mercury News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- California lags behind nearly all other states in students' vocabulary-- a critical part of reading -- although some minority groups improved in two years, according to results of national standardized tests released Thursday.

Overall, California fourth graders in 2011 scored below all states except in Arizona, Louisiana, New Mexico and the District of Columbia. But Asian, African-American and Latino fourth-grade scores improved, compared with 2009, the only other time that vocabulary was tested and scored separately from reading.

California eighth graders also scored fifth from the bottom, just above Hawaii, Mississippi, Louisiana and the District of Columbia.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation's Report Card, is administered to representative samples of students in grades four, eight and 12. The newest scores are from tests given in 2009 and 2011.

Nationally, scores barely budged overall and in specific demographic categories. The average national score in 2011 was 263 for eighth graders and 217 for fourth graders; California students' average was 9 points below at both grades.

Twelfth graders were tested only in 2009 and only in 11 states that volunteered; California was not one of them.

With few exceptions, California scored poorly when broken down by demographic characteristics like gender, ethnicity and poverty. For example, in 2011 the state's Latino fourth graders scored 7 points below Latinos nationwide, and the state's Asian eighth graders scored 2 points below Asians nationwide.

With the scale running from 1 to 500, does that mean scores indicate a vocabulary crisis "There's not any more of a crisis than we see in reading," said Margaret McKeown, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education, said in a NAEP a conference call on Wednesday. But, officials concede, many U.S. students score below and even way below grade level in reading.

It is difficult to parse out the meaning of the vocabulary scores, which NAEP officials have not assigned rankings, such as what point on the scale defines proficiency or basic mastery.

But test officials said that the words tested -- about 15 for each grade level -- include those that students should reasonably be expected to understand at their grade levels. "There are no trick questions," said Jack Buckley, a commissioner with the National Center for Education Statistics.

On the 2011 tests, three-quarters of the eighth graders tested understood "anecdotes," "edible," "enticing" and "replicate," for example, but fewer than half understood "urbane." Vocabulary mastery is critical to reading, officials said. "Kindergartners' vocabulary predicts reading comprehension later in elementary school," said McKeown.

NAEP seeks to assess students' knowledge of words in context, rather than asking them to choose definitions. Words tested generally are those found in written, not spoken, language and are examples of the kind of words that students need to be successful in reading and writing.

The national tests have been conducted since 1969 in reading, math, science, writing, U.S. history, civics, geography and other subjects.

Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at

___ (c)2012 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Visit the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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