As more importance is placed on standardized tests and closing achievement gaps nationwide, teachers report that math test scores are improving faster than reading test scores. When asked, one teacher attributed the lagging improvement of reading scores to the difficulties teachers face in overcoming that vast reading challenges students face. It seems the concrete nature of mathematics theory offers the opportunity to give a quiz to students, determine which concepts students struggle and simply “… teach the kids how to do it, and within a week or two you can usually fix it,” said David Javsicas, a reading teacher in Troy, NY. Whereas, helping students work through narrative perspectives, subtext and character motivation can be much more challenging. “It could take months to see if what I’m teaching is effective,” Jacsicas said.

VOCABULARY 180While teachers, politicians and business executives view the state of our math education as troublesome when compared to other countries, the fact that reading comprehension is tripping students up may be of greater concern. This growing trend of math test scores improving faster than reading test scores seems to be even more glaring at schools that serve low-income students. Teachers report finding it easier to achieve academic progress in math to hit national standards, whereas improving reading comprehension at the school level proves challenging with achievements moving at a markedly slower pace. While this article focuses on Troy Prep Middle School in Troy, Ny, schools across the nation are experiencing similar trends.

At Troy Prep, students entering the fifth grade here are often several years behind in both subjects, but last year, 100 percent of seventh graders scored at a level of proficient or advanced on state standardized math tests. In reading, by contrast, just over half of the seventh graders met comparable standards.

The results are similar across the 31 other schools in the Uncommon Schools network, which enrolls low-income students in Boston, New York City, Rochester and Newark. After attending an Uncommon school for two years, said Brett Peiser, the network’s chief executive, 86 percent of students score at a proficient or advanced level in math, while only about two thirds reach those levels in reading over the same period.

“Math is very close-ended,” Mr. Peiser said. Reading difficulties, he said, tend to be more complicated to resolve.

“Is it a vocabulary issue? A background knowledge issue? A sentence length issue? How dense is the text?” Mr. Peiser said, rattling off a string of potential reading roadblocks. “It’s a three-dimensional problem that you have to attack. And it just takes time.”

Uncommon’s experience is not so uncommon. Other charter networks and school districts similarly wrestle to bring struggling readers up to speed while having more success in math.

In a Mathematica Policy Research study of schools run by KIPP, one of the country’s best-known charter operators, researchers found that on average, students who had been enrolled in KIPP middle schools for three years had test scores that indicated they were about 11 months — or the equivalent of more than a full grade level — ahead of the national average in math. In reading, KIPP’s advantage over the national average was smaller, about eight months.

Among large public urban districts, which typically have large concentrations of poor students, six raised eighth-grade math scores on the federal tests known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress from 2009 to 2011. Only one — in Charlotte, N.C. — was able to do so in reading.

Studies have repeatedly found that “teachers have bigger impacts on math test scores than on English test scores,” said Jonah Rockoff, an economist at Columbia Business School. He was a co-author of a study that showed that teachers who helped students raise standardized test scores had a lasting effect on those students’ future incomes, as well as other lifelong outcomes.

Teachers and administrators who work with children from low-income families say one reason teachers struggle to help these students improve reading comprehension is that deficits start at such a young age: in the 1980s, the psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley found that by the time they are 4 years old, children from poor families have heard 32 million fewer words than children with professional parents.

By contrast, children learn math predominantly in school.

“Your mother or father doesn’t come up and tuck you in at night and read you equations,” said Geoffrey Borman, a professor at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin. “But parents do read kids bedtime stories, and kids do engage in discussions around literacy, and kids are exposed to literacy in all walks of life outside of school.”

Reading also requires background knowledge of cultural, historical and social references. Math is a more universal language of equations and rules.

CONTINUE READING In Raising Scores, 1 2 3 is Easier Than A B C to learn more about why Math Test Scores Are Improving Faster Than Reading Test Scores.

READ MORE about Improving Reading Comprehension This Summer



Motoko Rich writes about national K-12 education for The New York Times. Prior to that, she covered the national economy, writing about work force training, unemployment, housing and retirement. She also covered the book publishing industry for four years, during which time she wrote a series about the Future of Reading. She joined The Times in 2003 to write for the House & Home section and covered the run-up to the real estate boom.

She believes all these beats are ultimately connected, and welcomes ideas, comments, referrals, anxieties and constructive criticism. Before joining The Times, Motoko worked as a staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal for six years, in Atlanta and New York. She started her career as a reporter at The Financial Times in London. Motoko grew up in New Jersey, California and Japan and now lives in Brooklyn.