Learning to Read Your Child's Reading Scores

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 2008

You send your child off to kindergarten, confident she is a capable reader. She comes home one day with a report that says she is reading at Level 5. Is this cause for celebration or panic and self-recrimination? You are not sure.

Montgomery County's primary-grade literacy program is one of the most successful academic efforts in the county. Over the past few years, the school system has made steady progress toward a goal of universal grade-level literacy in kindergarten and first and second grades.

The share of kindergarten students reading at grade level now tops 90 percent, with remarkable consistency across demographic groups and almost no hint of a socioeconomic achievement gap. Performance falls off in the next two grades, but the share of grade-level readers in each grade has risen year by year.

Parents sometimes struggle, however, to make sense of the copious data being generated on their children. Reading levels are assessed on a scale that begins at 2, progresses to 16, then switches over to letters and goes from J to P.

"Teachers are very comfortable and familiar" with the scale, "but it does seem very complex to an outsider," said Ann Bedford, a director in the school system's curriculum office.

It's a hybrid of two diagnostic reading scales. The numbers come from the New Zealand program Reading Recovery, which focuses on struggling first-graders. The letters come from the work of scholars Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, who deal with struggling readers across a broader age and ability range.

Level 3 or 4 on the Reading Recovery scale is the reading level most kindergarten teachers would expect of their students at the end of the year. Montgomery schools used Level 3 as the benchmark for the end of kindergarten but are raising the goal to Level 4 this academic year. More than 90 percent of kindergarten students have tested at Level 3 or better in end-of-year assessments the past three years. More than 80 percent of kindergartners read at Level 4 or better, meaning that they can probably find their way through an Eric Carle board book such as "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?"

At the start of this decade, just two-fifths of kindergartners in the county could read simple texts. The progress reflects several factors, school system officials say: the expansion of kindergarten from a half-day to a full day, greater emphasis on teaching academics in kindergarten and the genesis of an automated reading assessment to measure student progress. Students are assessed at the beginning, middle and end of the year in the first three grades. Teachers give the tests on personal digital assistants. Results are analyzed instantly. Teachers and schools often communicate results to parents; if not, it's a great conversation-starter at a parent-teacher conference.

The literacy goal for the end of first grade is Level 16 on the Reading Recovery scale, which corresponds roughly to the language in Else Holmelund Minarik's "Little Bear" book series. The share of students meeting that goal has risen from 76 percent in 2006 to 83 percent this past spring.

The goal for the end of second grade is Level M on the Fountas and Pinnell scale, exemplified by the Robert McCloskey book "Blueberries for Sal." The share of students meeting the goal rose from 61 percent in 2006 to 70 percent this year.

Automated reading assessments replaced a paper-and-pencil test that teachers had been giving since 2001, Bedford said. The paper test was time-consuming. The hand-held digital assessments take up a teacher's time, as well, but only for actual testing. The computer does all of the subsequent number-crunching.

Students who meet the second-grade benchmark are likely to pass the Maryland School Assessment in reading in third grade, according to the latest annual report on the reading assessments, released last month. Better still, the report suggests, schools should try to attain even higher reading targets in all three grades: Level 6 in kindergarten, Level J in first grade and Level P in second grade. Those benchmarks would put students on pace, the researchers contend, to score at the highest level, advanced, on the state assessment in third grade.

Reading scores at individual schools are uniformly high, especially in kindergarten. Eleven schools -- Bannockburn, Belmont, Cold Spring, DuFief, Kensington Parkwood, Luxmanor, Matsunaga, Potomac, Seven Locks, Stone Mill and Westbrook -- reported 100 percent kindergarten literacy this year. Only one school, Bells Mill, managed universal literacy in first grade. Garrett Park Elementary had the largest share of second-grade literacy, 99 percent.

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