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Posted at 08:30 AM ET, 06/08/2011

Where the 1st graders read but the 4th graders don’t

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This was written by John Merrow, veteran education reporter for PBS, NPR, and dozens of national publications. He is president of Learning Matters, a non-profit media production company, and his latest book is The Influence of Teachers . This post was published on his blog, Taking Note.

By John Merrow

Can something really be good and bad at the same time? How about that delicious but fattening dinner you had last week? It was great, until you added up the calories, right? Now what about a school? Can it be both good and bad at the same time? Is educational quality — like beauty — in the eye of the beholder or do test scores say it all?

More precisely, can a school with only 18% of its 4th graders at grade level in reading be considered a good school? Before you say, “Of course not,” please read on. Because we discovered that the FIRST graders at that school were reading confidently and competently. That’s right: the first graders were readers, but the fourth graders weren’t according to the results of the state test.

Is this a paradox, or a full-blown contradiction?

I’m asking these questions of you because we are asking them of ourselves, in our reporting for the PBS NewsHour . It actually began with a different question: “Are the Reading Wars (phonics versus whole language) over, or do they rage on, but under the radar?”

As a starting point, producer Cat McGrath and I decided to see if we could get into some schools with terrible reading scores. While a couple of principals turned us down, the principal of PS 1 in the South Bronx in New York City, said, “Come on up. We are a great school.”

“Yeah, right,” we thought. After all, we had the scores in front of us: not even 18% of the school’s 4th graders were competent readers.

We went up to that high-poverty neighborhood, where crime scene tapes proliferate and unemployed men linger on street corners. PS 1 fits right in. It is grim looking from the outside, a fortress-like building with few windows. Inside is different, however. The classrooms and corridors of PS 1 are bright and full of energy, with student work displayed everywhere. Jorge Perdomo, who’s led the school for five years, took us to his first grade classes. ”Our first graders are reading,” he claimed, “and writing too,” pointing to their papers on classroom walls.

Our skepticism did not seem to bother him or diminish his enthusiasm. “Come on back anytime — with your cameras — and see for yourself.”

We did. We saw veteran and rookie teachers giving their first graders a strong (and essential) foundation in phonics. First graders were learning that letters make sounds, that combinations of letters make different sounds, and that, when letters are strung together, they can make words. They were decoding.

That’s only part of the battle, of course. Comprehension, actually understanding what the words mean, is a tougher challenge. To test that skill, I asked the first graders to close their eyes while I wrote a nonsense story on the board: “The blue pancake went swimming in the lake and ate a frog.”

They read it eagerly and confidently. When I asked what they thought of the story, they said without much enthusiasm, “It’s OK,” but that was because they were just being polite to the white-haired stranger. When I asked, “Is there anything wrong with that story?” (a question that gave them permission to be critical), they were impossible to contain. Pancakes aren’t blue, pancakes can’t swim, pancakes don’t have a mouth, and pancakes can’t eat a frog. The words tumbled out of their mouths.

The principal was right about his first graders, but what about the fourth graders and their 18% competency?

Adults offered several possible explanations. By the time they’re fourth graders, one teacher said, they are no longer naive. They know that their Dad is in prison, or their Mom has a drinking problem, or maybe they now have to be responsible for their younger siblings. Life has caught up with them, and reading no longer matters.

The test is much harder, several offered. Now they have to reach conclusions and draw inferences, and that’s much tougher.

We looked over past tests, and, sure enough, the passages were about subjects that poor kids in the south Bronx may not be familiar with (cicadas or dragonflies were two of the subjects, for example). Answering the questions did require inferential leaps, just as we had been told.

So we asked to talk with a couple of fourth graders who were reading below grade level, and here’s where it got complicated.... In the NewsHour piece, both children, one age 9 and the other 11, handled the passages and answered all the questions. Maybe the personal attention helped, but they read easily and drew inferences correctly. We only ‘tested’ a couple of kids, but both were below grade-level, their teacher assured us.

Where does that leave us? Maybe the kids are terrible test takers? Maybe there’s too much stress (there’s a couple of weeks of test-prep build into the schedule)? Perhaps there’s a fundamental contradiction between testing reading and reading itself?

I have a theory, but I would love to know what others make of this.

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