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Illinois students’ vocabulary skills on par with nation

Lake Bluff Middle School eighth-grader Anthony Ferretti (center) other students work homework prior start school day while school’s library medicenter

Lake Bluff Middle School eighth-grader Anthony Ferretti (center) and other students work on homework prior to the start of the school day while in the school’s library media center in Lake Bluff. | Buzz Orr~Sun-Times Media file

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Updated: February 5, 2013 2:11AM

Most of Illinois’ fourth-graders know what the words “suggested” and “underestimated” when reading them in stories, but not “prestigious” and “barren.”

Eighth-graders for the most part recognize the meaning of “motivate” and “specialty,” but few understand “permeated.”

And while the vocabulary of Illinois’ young readers is right on par with the rest of the nation, the state’s poor children still lag behind.

That’s according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which for the first time Thursday reported vocabulary scores pulled out from the reading tests it gives to a sample of fourth- and eighth-graders nationwide and 12th- graders in 11 states.

Which is troubling, experts say, since vocabulary is so key to reading comprehension, and poverty continues to rise in Illinois. More than half the state’s 1.95 million schoolchildren qualified for free or reduced lunch in 2012.

“There are a lot of students in this country who are not reading up to the level they need to be and one of the problems is vocabulary,” said Margaret McKeown, a senior scientist at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education who was involved in developing the test. “What we need vocabulary for is to make sense of what we read and to integrate words into an overall text to give context, and not just to memorize definitions.”

The results overall showed “a consistent relationship between comprehension and vocabulary,” she said.

NAEP broke down by state the vocabulary results out of the reading tests taken every two years by fourth- and eighth-graders, and every four years by 12th-graders. The tests, considered more rigorous than Illinois’ achievement exam, are given nationwide as a common yardstick to measure students’ learning.

Illinois mirrors the national average — “historically with where we fall in line with these NAEP tests,” said Mary Fergus, a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education.

Illinois students in eighth grade scored an average 266 out of a possible 500, a bit above the national average of 264 in 2011.

Fourth-graders scored an average 219, just below the national average of 220.

But in 2011, low-income Illinois fourth-graders scored just 196 points out of 500, 6 points below the national average, and almost 40 below their wealthier counterparts.

In eighth grade, the difference was 30 points.

Nor did the gap shrink from 2009 to 2011.

“The state’s race gap remains a mixed bag.

African-American and Hispanic children still lag significantly behind white and Asian children.

African-American in Illinois even lost a few vocabulary points in fourth grade from 2009 to 2011, but gained a few in eighth.

Hispanic children made small gains in both grades. White children outscored African-American and Hispanic children in all three grades in 2009, and both lower grades in 2011. Asian/Pacific Islander students also outscored everyone else.

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