Poor reading stunts 8th-graders' growth MSPAP indicates trend

key concern is comprehension

December 15, 1997|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF Electronic news editor Michael J. Himowitz contributed to this article.

Jack Wooden has 180 days to fill his sixth-graders' heads with the cultures of Canada, Japan, India, Mexico and Central America.

For that, he relies on books and scholastic magazines.

But many of his students -- about 40 percent, he figures -- are such poor readers that the cultures of the world, their geography and politics, don't make it off the printed page.

"I give them homework assignments, and you can tell from the answers that they don't really understand what they're reading," said the social studies teacher at Franklin Middle School in Baltimore County.

"In class, I get a million questions when they have to read on their own. It's much better when we read together."

Test scores released last week tell the same disturbing story for middle schools throughout Maryland -- from large, affluent Montgomery County to rural Wicomico on the Eastern Shore. Eighth-grade reading scores on average fell last year, continuing a bumpy four-year trend that has state educators calling for middle-school reading reform.

The 1997 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program shows that while students overall made progress in most other subject areas -- and in third- and fifth-grade reading -- eighth-grade reading scores dropped more than 2 percentage points. About 26 percent of students scored at a satisfactory level.

In the Baltimore metropolitan area, reading scores rose at only 39 percent of middle schools. Baltimore County and Baltimore City were the exceptions, posting slight increases of less than a half-point apiece.

More troubling to state education officials is the lack of long-term progress in eighth-grade reading -- on a test that by its design is expected to produce improved scores as schools adjust to the exam. While overall reading scores in grades three and five have climbed more than 10 percentage points since 1993, the eighth-grade scores have advanced only 1.7 points.

"I'm very concerned about grade eight," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "I think it's an indication that we do not have the same direction and focus on reading in the middle school as in the elementary school. There isn't sufficient expertise among teachers in the secondary schools.

"There's an attitude," Grasmick said, "that reading is pretty much accomplished when a student exits elementary school. These scores show that is not true. Unless we see very focused attention on reading and how we're arranging our time and priorities, we're going to see declines."

Grasmick plans to name a panel next month to examine middle schools and find ways to improve reading.

State officials have yet to analyze the scores in depth. But based on discussions with local officials, they suspect that eighth-graders' greatest struggles are with a testing category called "reading to be informed" -- understanding factual and technical information.

Pressed for time

Middle-school teachers are often so pressed to get across the content of their subject areas -- what caused World War II, for instance -- that they revert to oral presentations or films instead of requiring children to work methodically through text on their own, said Trudy Collier, chief of the language development and early learning branch of the State Department of Education.

And most middle- and high-school teachers lack strong backgrounds in reading, so they're at a loss to spot and treat reading problems. These teachers can become certified in Maryland without taking a reading course. Grasmick and a reading task force are working to change that and have proposed requiring more courses in reading for aspiring teachers at all grade levels and subject areas. The idea is to enable them to teach reading while they are teaching about western democracy and pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

State education officials who develop the MSPAP and give sample reading tests to children said Friday that eighth-graders tend to have few problems sounding out words, but they often give surprisingly superficial interpretations of stories, without seeing deeper meaning.

Asked about a metaphor-laden story called "Summer Is a Butterfly," for example, children answer the questions as if the story were literally about butterflies, said Mary Jo Comer, a language arts specialist for the state.

"They all can decode, but they have very limited ability to extend the meaning beyond the very basic literal level," she said.

Grasmick's plan to require more reading training for aspiring middle- and high-school teachers -- and to retrain teachers already in the classroom -- could run into resistance. It will require a change in philosophy about the role of secondary teachers, who often see their job as solely teaching their subject area, leaving reading instruction to elementary schools.

Such sensitivities surfaced at a reading task force meeting Friday when members discussed whether they should make the proposed required reading courses more palatable by leaving the "r-word" out of the course titles.

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