Bogus Claims About Reading First

By Stephen Krashen

Illustrator: Joseph Blough

Photo: Joseph Blough

Careful observers will note that the administration has been changing its claims about the success of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Reading First, first making a claim and then quietly dropping it when counterevidence is published, then going on to make another claim, which is refuted and again quietly dropped. As contrasted with the use of the same strategy in justifying the war in Iraq, most of the media hasn’t caught on, and it dutifully repeats the claims without examining them carefully, and without reading what critics have said.

What ‘No Improvement’ Means

Let’s look at tests at the state level, national level, and tests that are part of international comparisons. Reading First fails at all three levels, producing no improvement.

“No improvement” really means failure: According to the Center for Education Policy, students in Reading First get an extra 100 minutes per week of reading instruction, or an extra semester every two years.

If Reading First were only mildly effective, there would be obvious improvement. In other words, we are comparing extra reading instruction to not teaching reading at all. (See Gerald Coles’ book Reading the Naked Truth for a discussion of the importance of considering the question “compared with what”?) Of course, not all children are involved in Reading First, but this massive extra instruction should make a noticeable difference if it is effective.

State Level

A 2007 report from the Center on Education Policy resulted in claims of victory from the Bush administration. The report examined test score data on tests of reading from individual states, and focused on the percentage of children to achieve “proficiency.”

I did a comparison of gains made before NCLB was implemented (2001-02) and after (2002-06) and found that the rate of improvement for 4th graders increased by less than one third of a percent, moving from 1.2 percent more children classified as proficient each year before NCLB to 1.51 percent after NCLB for the 11 states where data were available.

The press releases from the Department of Education no longer mention the Center on Education Policy report.

National Level

The administration has proudly announced, on several occasions, that “reading scores for 4th graders are at historic highs” on national tests, implying that NCLB and Reading First deserves the credit for this.

But the “historic highs” on this test (the NAEP) are largely the result of a jump that occurred before Reading First went into effect, not after: Note the six point increase between 2000 and 2002 (Reading First went into effect in 2002-03).

1998 / 215
2000 / 213
2002 / 219
2003 / 218
2005 / 219
2007 / 221

Also, and contrary to claims of the administration, gaps between high- and low-income children have not narrowed: There was a 30-point gap between students from high- and low-income families in 2003. In 2007 the gap was 29 points, nearly exactly the same.

Analyses done by Bruce Fuller and colleagues, Jaekyung Lee, Jim Crawford, and me have all come to similar conclusions: there has been no improvement on national tests. No academic studies have been published claiming that Reading First has worked. The administration’s press releases have quietly dropped discussion of NAEP.

International Comparisons

On the recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) reading test, American 4th graders scored slightly lower in 2006, four years after NCLB was implemented, than they did in 2001. In a press statement released in November 2007, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings attributed this to a small sample size (n=5,000), still claiming that we are “seeing progress” under NCLB. Since that press release, Spellings has not mentioned PIRLS.

The Passive Media

The Bush administration has yet to even acknowledge the existence of the reports cited here and their conclusions, and depends on a passive media to repeat the claims in their press releases. In my experience, the media have not been particularly receptive to reporting the negative results of NAEP, most likely because reporters are overworked, and evaluation of these reports involve some reflection and some understanding of how test scores work, not part of the background of many reporters.

I have tried to make things easier to absorb, turning to poetry:

Extra instruction, and billions spent
Reading First hasn’t made a dent

PIRLS tests, NAEP tests
It’s all the same
No improvement can be claimed

Secretary Spellings trembles at the knees
When she sees test scores such as these.


Center on Education Policy. 2007. 
Answering the Question That Matters Most: Has Student Achievement Increased Since No Child Left Behind?(

Coles, G. 2003. Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation, and Lies. Portsmouth, Heinemann.

Crawford, J. 2007. Selling NCLB: Would you buy a used law from this woman? 

Fuller, B., Wright, J., Gesicki, K. and Kang, E. 2007. “Gauging Growth: How to judge No Child Left Behind?”Educational Researcher, 36: 268-278.

Krashen, S. 2006. Did Reading First Work? 

Krashen, S. 2007. NCLB: No Impact on State Fourth Grade Reading Test Scores. (

Lee, J. 2006. Tracking Achievement Gaps and Assessing the Impact of NCLB On the Gaps: An In-Depth Look Into National and State Reading and Math Outcomes. Harvard University: Civil Rights Project.

Lee, J. 2008. “Two Takes On the Impact of NCLB on Academic Improvement: Tracking State Proficiency Trends Through NAEP Versus State Assessments.” In G. Sunderman (Ed.), Holding NCLB Accountable. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press. pp. 75-89.

Stephen Krashen is Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Southern California.