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Vocabulary 'report card': 'Urbane' stumps 8th-graders, 'grimace' doesn't

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Students in fourth, eighth, and 12th grades answered multiple-choice vocabulary questions based on passages of text they had read.

At least 75 percent of fourth-graders understood the meaning of words such as “created” and “underestimate.” Eighth-graders knew “grimace” and “enticing.” And 12th-graders grasped “capitalize” and “prospective.”

Some words that stumped the majority of students: “barren” and “prestigious” for fourth-graders; “urbane” for eighth-graders; and “delusion” for 12th-graders.

All items on the test are based on what a student performing at grade level should be able to understand. But, as in the overall reading assessment, there are some large gaps in vocabulary knowledge between various groups of students.

Among eighth-graders, for instance, the overall average score was 265 on a 500-point scale in both 2009 and 2011. But Asian and white, non-Hispanic students on average scored more than 20 points higher than black and Hispanic students. The gap between whites and Hispanics did narrow somewhat, however, from 30 points in 2009 to 28 points in 2011.

Racial gaps of a similar size exist at the fourth- and 12th-grade levels, as well. And for fourth- and eighth-graders, nearly 30 points divide students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch from their better-off peers (that measurement is not available for 12th grade).

“Among my students who are economically disadvantaged, I see some common barriers: not having reading materials at home, not having a support group to encourage visits to the library or reading newspapers and magazines, or simply not being read to,… [and that] makes a difference,” said Brent Houston, principal of Shawnee (Okla.) Middle School, in a statement prepared for the NAEP vocabulary release event Thursday morning.

To address this, Shawnee teachers “routinely stop when reading passages aloud to ask questions and hold conversations,” helping students understand specific words, says Mr. Houston, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), which oversees NAEP.

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