Most Kindergartners Now Can Read a Book

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Montgomery County school system has nearly met its goal of all students reading by the end of kindergarten and has all but eliminated disparities across racial groups in kindergarten literacy, Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said yesterday.

The share of kindergarten students in the county who can read simple books has risen from 39 to 93 percent in six years, according to school system data culled from reading assessments given each spring. Achievement is so high, and across so many demographic groups, that school officials plan to test future kindergartners on more challenging text.

"This is the collapsing of the gap," Weast said, speaking to an audience of parents, students and educators at College Gardens Elementary School in Rockville.

The news conference was called partly for the benefit of the County Council, whose members have been examining the superintendent's record with the achievement gap. Last week, the county Office of Legislative Oversight released a somewhat critical report on the school system's progress toward erasing performance disparities among students of different demographic groups.

The report found that the gap has narrowed under Weast's leadership, particularly on tests of reading and math given in the lower grades. Pass rates on the kindergarten assessment ranged from 87 to 97 percent among students of different races. Progress is slower in the middle grades, and the gap has widened on a few high school measures, such as SAT performance and rates of student suspension.

Weast said the report underscores the need to continue funding his initiatives. He and the school system are under pressure to limit spending like never before in the superintendent's nine-year tenure. The county projects a spending shortfall of $401 million for fiscal 2009, which begins in July. Weast's $2.1 billion operating budget proposal awaits action by the school board and County Council in coming months.

"They can't put out that particular report and then not fund the budget," Weast said, "because the gap will reopen very quickly."

Weast spoke at a newly modernized school that was the first elementary campus in Maryland to offer the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum in the primary grades. IB enrollment in the county has multiplied fivefold, to almost 7,000 students, in the past seven years.

The presentation focused on one of the school system's most celebrated efforts, a push to have all students reading by the end of kindergarten. Students have fared well in a related test of first-grade reading skills, with pass rates rising from 60 to 82 percent in the past five years. On a newer test of second-grade reading ability, the pass rate rose from 55 percent in 2006 to 68 percent last year.

Weast said the results bear directly on two of the school system's most costly initiatives, which lengthened the kindergarten instructional day from a half-day to a full day and lowered class sizes in high-poverty schools. Full-day kindergarten has become standard across much of the nation, helping spawn a generation of kindergartners who can read.

The success or failure of such initiatives could drive spending decisions in a lean budget season. County Council members sought the independent report partly to help them decide whether to fund budget requests for school programs that purport to close the gap.

In a meeting Monday of the council's education committee, council members questioned why the school system had been unable to reduce the disproportionate share of minority students suspended from school and why African Americans and Hispanics remained underrepresented in the gifted education program. But council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring) said the panel remained "very committed" to continued support of academic initiatives in high-poverty communities.

Weast said he would not ask the council to fund failed programs. In previous budget cycles, he said, "we got rid of over $60 million worth of programs that weren't working and converted the money to programs that are working." In his budget proposal for the next fiscal year, Weast proposes a spending increase of $110 million, or about 5.6 percent. He says it is the smallest year-to-year increase proposed since 1997.

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