6th-grade reading program praised

Some parents challenge schools staff's assessment

Anne Arundel

August 08, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

The Anne Arundel County school board heard its staff deliver a glowing report yesterday on the first-year success of the expanded sixth-grade reading program - then heard parents call it a load of hooey.

School officials said the program, which gives sixth-graders two periods of language arts daily, has improved the test scores of all pupils - black and white, male and female, good readers and struggling readers - except for Hispanics.

Sixth-grade Hispanic reading scores have declined for two years running, and system officials were at a loss to explain why. They said they would look into it. But otherwise, staffers praised the program.

"The improvements in reading, vocabulary, language and language mechanics are well beyond anything that could be attributed to chance," said Thomas Rhoades, the system's director of program planning.

Overall, sixth-graders scored in the 59th percentile last year on a national standardized reading test, meaning they did better than 59 percent of their peers nationwide. The previous year they scored in the 53rd percentile.

But parents of middle school children pointed out that the 59th percentile score was lower than what those sixth-graders had scored when they were fifth-graders the year before - in the 63rd percentile. That drop led them to question the value of the highly promoted reading program.

"Those scores and that drop-off do concern me," said Chris Maranto, chairwoman of the Citizens Advisory Committee at Severna Park Middle School.

Rhoades responded that the sixth-grade test is more difficult than the fifth-grade test and measures different skills. He said the national trend is for scores to go down between those two grades.

Superintendent reacts

Superintendent Eric J. Smith said that was no excuse.

"It doesn't matter what the nation does," Smith said. "We want to buck the trend and show growth."

He said the school system needs to answer some basic questions: "Do we have a problem with middle-school literacy? And is this particular intervention doing what we need it to do?"

The superintendent commended the school board and staff for "moving very boldly" in adopting the program last year but said it will continue to be evaluated. He said the data presented to the board yesterday showed substantial gains in some areas, such as achievement by black pupils.

Sixth-grade reading scores for African-Americans increased to the 39th percentile last year, up 7 percentile points. (White pupils were up 5 percentile points to the 63rd percentile, and Asian pupils up 11 percentile points to the 67th percentile.)

School board member Eugene Peterson said the gain made by black pupils is commendable but not enough.

Addressing the gap

The school system must address the wide gap between scores of black and white children, he said.

"The numbers for African-Americans continue to be troubling because they're still way below," Peterson said.

One parent raised questions yesterday about content of the sixth-grade reading program, which includes quiet reading time for pupils every day.

Bonnie Gollup of Lothian said some children see it as break time.

"The comment that's been haunting me came from one student who said, `It's the only time of the day that I don't have to do anything,'" said Gollup, who has a son entering middle school this fall.

"I'd rather his time in school be spent learning," she said. "I don't want him to have zone-out time."

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