Climb toward better reading hits a plateau

The Education Beat

MSPAP: Like scaling a mountain, progress isn't always fast or without setbacks, as 1999 scores showed.

January 02, 2000|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

KENT COUNTY slipped past Howard County in the state's test of overall school performance last year, and when Howard Superintendent Michael E. Hickey heard the news, he placed a concession call to his counterpart across the Bay Bridge, Kent County Superintendent Lorraine A. Costella.

It was only partly in jest. Hickey had announced his retirement this summer after 15 years on the job, and Maryland's senior superintendent took personally his system's stagnating scores in the 1999 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP).

"I was terribly disappointed," Hickey said when MSPAP scores were released last month. "I don't know if it's possible to get us back where we need to be in six months, but I'm going to try."

Howard County wasn't alone. MSPAP scores in all of the suburban districts hit a brick wall last year, and reading results were particularly disappointing.

It wasn't for lack of effort or commitment. As Sun reporters Howard Libit, Liz Bowie, Lynn Anderson, Jackie Powder, Tanika White, David L. Greene and Lisa Respers documented in a weeklong series ending yesterday, the six metropolitan districts put more effort into reading instruction last year than perhaps any period in recent history.

Some of the common themes:

They're starting earlier, even in pre-kindergarten. Educators no longer hide the alphabet from kindergartners.

They're assessing children's early literacy skills with ever-more sophisticated instruments. It's much harder now for kids with reading difficulties to slip through the cracks.

Once reading problems are diagnosed, children are getting swift and direct help. Districts aren't limiting extra help to kids with dyslexia and other disabilities. Anne Arundel and Carroll, among others, are going after marginal readers, those in trouble but ineligible for special education.

Phonics, only three years ago a weed in the back of the educators' garden, is up front and in full bloom. Particularly impressive is Anne Arundel, where a locally written guide called Word Masters sets out specific, week-by-week lessons in phonics and "phonemic awareness," a necessary precursor to phonics that teaches the sounds of the language.

Reading programs are applied districtwide, a necessity in an era of high student turnover. Baltimore's tick upward in 1999 scores might be attributable to new reading programs applied across the elementary grades and across the city.

Finally, children are reading more -- as much as two hours each morning in many schools. Schools are infusing reading in all of the disciplines, even physical education.

Why, then, the slowdown? Why did only 48 percent of the state's elementary schools improve third-grade reading scores last year?

Lag time

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick says all of the elements of good reading instruction are present in some schools but not in others. There's lag time between the intention to reform and the act of reforming, and there's lag time between improved instruction and higher MSPAP scores.

Many teachers haven't been trained to teach phonics systematically, and teachers' colleges only now are planning the new reading courses ordered by the State Board of Education. Research shows that class-size reduction takes years to show up in improved test scores. Test scores often decline in the first year of a new program such as Baltimore's Open Court.

In May, MSPAP will mark its eighth year of official testing. Scores rose gradually over the first six, then stagnated.

But ascending a mountain takes time and infinite patience. The foothills are easiest. The increments of progress narrow as the climb gets more difficult, and sometimes pauses and setbacks occur.

That's the situation with MSPAP. The slow-but-sure improvement in reading scores in the first six years might have lulled Marylanders into a false sense of security.

Awaiting gains

Grasmick estimates the state might not see substantial test score gains in early reading until next year. She might be optimistic.

A major lesson of MSPAP 1999 is that it's easier said than done -- and it won't be done by principals kissing pigs to reward good work or arriving by helicopter on test day. Indeed, these gimmicks might be counterproductive because they leave the impression that teaching reading is public relations.

It's not. As the nationally known researcher Louisa Moats has written, teaching reading is rocket science.

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