Upper Grades, Lower Reading Skills

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 13, 2006

Teaching reading has long been considered the job of primary grade teachers. But some educators are calling for more attention to be paid to the reading needs of middle and high school students, many of whom are struggling to master this critical skill.

The Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based education policy research and advocacy group, estimates that as many as 6 million middle and high school students can't read at acceptable levels. It's an issue for students well above the bottom of the class. A report released in March that looked at the reading skills of college-bound students who took the ACT college entrance exam found that only 51 percent were prepared for college-level reading.

"That is what is the most startling and troubling," said Cyndie Schmeiser, ACT's senior vice president of research and development. "The literacy problem affects all groups -- not exactly in the same ways, but it's affecting all groups regardless of gender, income or race."

Though struggling students might be able to read words on paper, experts said, they lack the ability to explain or analyze what the words mean.

In the past two years, at least a half-dozen major education associations have released reports on adolescent literacy, including the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of State Boards of Education. State and national test scores also paint a troubling picture of the reading skills of older students.

In Maryland, 33 percent of incoming high school freshmen will need extra help in reading, according to results from the 2006 Maryland School Assessments released last month. In Virginia, 24 percent of last year's freshmen needed additional support. And according to 2005 test results in D.C. public schools, 71 percent of middle and high school students needed special help with reading.

The National Governors Association has offered states grants to develop programs targeted at older students. And school systems faced with significant numbers of middle and high school students unable to read well enough to keep up with their peers already have begun investing more dollars into programs to aid students.

Starting this fall, educators in Montgomery County will spend $1.2 million to place reading coaches at its 25 high school campuses -- more than tripling the number the system had last year. In Anne Arundel, officials will launch a course targeted at high school students who have difficulty reading. In Virginia, state education officials have formed a task force that will examine, among other issues, why so many of its high school students are struggling to read. Fairfax County schools already offer special courses for high school students who have difficulty reading.

Last year, the Bush administration launched the Striving Readers program, a $24.8 million effort that targets middle and high school readers. In the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, the administration hopes to almost triple the program's funding to $70.3 million. But educators said that is a drop in the bucket compared with the nearly $5 billion the federal government has spent to help younger kids read since 2002.

"This assumption that students master all the reading skills they need by the end of third grade just doesn't fly," said Beth Cady, spokeswoman for the International Reading Association.

Educators said older students struggle for many reasons.

The U.S. school population has rapidly diversified over the past few decades. The number of students who are learning English has more than doubled, from 2.03 million in 1989-90 to 5.01 million in 2003-04, according to the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs. A decade ago, students who were learning English made up 6.1 percent of the student population in Montgomery; today, the figure is almost 10 percent.

But it's not just immigrants. A breakdown of test scores in Maryland, for example, shows that black students, those enrolled in special education and those who come from poor families are most likely to lack strong reading skills.

Educators said it's difficult to pin down one cause. Bad teaching, chaotic home lives, low expectations for some students, cultural bias, the fact that older students simply don't read enough -- all have been faulted.

And student attitude can be a factor.

"By late elementary school, kids who are struggling readers have developed strategies to avoid reading," said Sylvia Edwards, a reading specialist with the Maryland State Department of Education. "They are under the radar, scraping by."

Even in such affluent, high-achieving counties as Montgomery, one in five kids reaches high school reading at a basic level. When broken down by race, the numbers are even more startling, with 42.1 percent of black students and 47.8 percent of Hispanic students reading at only a basic level when they reach high school.

In Fairfax, about 15 percent of students who entered high school last year had difficulty reading. But among black students, 32 percent were not reading well; among Hispanic students, 33 percent were struggling.

Timothy Shanahan, president of the International Reading Association and a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said many school systems stop emphasizing formal reading instruction once children leave primary grades. "It's not like a polio vaccine -- a couple of shots when you're a little kid and then you're done," he said.

And often, if older kids are having difficulty reading, their middle and high school teachers lack the training to intervene. "It's a lot easier in grade school to talk about learning to read, but if you're talking about it when you get to high school, then you're acknowledging that we've somehow slipped up," said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and a former governor of West Virginia.

Shanahan and others said the key to helping older students is less about the mechanics of reading -- phonics and such -- than about the nuances of reading, that is, teaching students how to understand and explain what they read.

Patricia O'Neill, who represents Bethesda and Chevy Chase on the Montgomery school board, said she fears that if more isn't done to help kids catch up, they will not be able to graduate from high school, noting that statewide tests that students must now take to receive their diplomas include significant amounts of reading and writing.

Wise and others said that unless more is done, school systems will be forced to spend millions on remediation programs. And efforts to close the achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian counterparts could be stymied.

"The focus of state and federal efforts has been on the early grades, and it needs to start there," Wise said. "K-3 is necessary for building a strong foundation, but I wouldn't be much of a carpenter if I build a foundation but not the rest of the house."

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