Achievement Gap Exists in Online Reading Skills

(istock/UConn photo)
(istock/UConn photo)
A group of teenage students gather around a computer. (iStock Photo)

Students in lower income school districts have a significantly harder time analyzing and understanding information on the Internet than their peers, according to a new University of Connecticut study that indicates a troubling online reading achievement gap may exist in the nation’s schools.

Online reading skills are considered vital to students’ future academic and professional success. The achievement gap found in the UConn study is separate from the widely recognized gap in traditional, offline reading ability.

“The results of this study show a new, separate, and independent achievement gap for online reading,” says Professor Donald Leu, Neag Endowed Chair in Literacy and Technology and the study’s lead author. “This type of reading is not adequately recognized by schools in most states, and yet it will define our students’ future.”

Professor Donald Leu, Neag Endowed Chair in Literacy and Technology. (Neag School of Education/UConn Photo)
Professor Donald Leu, Neag Endowed Chair in Literacy and Technology. (Neag School of Education/UConn Photo)

Leu points out that the words ‘online’ or ‘Internet’ never appear in the Common Core State Reading Standards, and online reading comprehension is currently not included in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, considered ‘the gold standard’ of achievement tests.

The study was led by a research team in UConn’s Neag School of Education. The findings appear in the September online edition of Reading Research Quarterly, the flagship journal for reading research published by the International Reading Association.

In the study, researchers with UConn’s New Literacies Research Lab asked seventh-grade students in two Connecticut districts to complete online reading tasks in science and write short reports of their findings in an email message and on a classroom wiki. The districts were identical in the number of computers available for instruction and connected to the Internet. The two school districts were substantially different in three areas related to income inequality: median family income, the percentage of families below the poverty line, and the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch.

Students in the economically advantaged district, on average, performed twice as well as students in the economically challenged district in online reading. After controlling for pretest differences on the state reading test, the state writing test, and a test of prior knowledge, a large and significant difference for online reading ability still remained between students in the two school districts.

“Recent research has helped us to understand achievement gaps in the context of the usual amount of learning that occurs across the school year,” says Chris Rhoads, assistant professor in the Neag School of Education and a member of the research team. “Based on this work, the achievement gap that we found is approximately equivalent to a year of learning in the middle school years.”

Unprepared for a lifetime of online information

Nicole Timbrell, one of the study’s co-authors and a UConn graduate student working in the New Literacies Research Lab, says, “Students from both schools appeared particularly underprepared to read online and learn new information in science.”

Overall, students responded correctly to fewer than 50 percent of items. Students in the economically disadvantaged district, however, responded correctly to fewer than 25 percent of items.

“For a generation raised in an online world, these results surprised us,” says Elena Forzani, an advanced UConn doctoral student involved in the study. “Student performance in both districts was especially low in two areas: the ability to evaluate the reliability of scientific information on a web page, and the ability to communicate results in an email message and on a classroom wiki.”

The performance-based assessment asked students to complete two online reading and research tasks. The reading tasks were conducted within a simulation of the Internet with a social network, email, text messaging, web pages, a search engine based on Google, and a wiki. A student avatar guided students through each activity with text messages.

“The students in our study appeared to be unprepared for a lifetime of reading and learning with online information,” says Leu, an international authority on the new literacies of online reading comprehension. “They may be digital natives with video, texting, and gaming but with online information use, they appear to be digital dilettantes.”

The two districts in the study did not represent the most extreme economic levels of the U.S. The economically challenged district had a median family income of nearly $60,000, whereas the poverty threshold is $24,028 for a family of four, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Our results are perhaps best construed as an exploration of the achievement gap between the privileged and the middle class,” Leu says. “Had schools from greater extremes in income been evaluated, the differences might have been greater.”

The study used performance-based, Online Research and Comprehension Assessments developed as part of a federal research grant funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Educational Sciences. Other members of the project included Jonna Kulikowich (Pennsylvania State University), Nell Sedransk (The National Institute of Statistical Science), Julie Coiro (University of Rhode Island), and Michael Hillinger (Lexicon Systems).

As part of the research project, team members developed valid, reliable, and practical assessments of online research and comprehension. These assessments and the results of this research project are now being adapted for use in ePIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study), an international assessment of reading ability among 10-year olds.