Letter on Reading Ability Levels Fails Comprehension Test

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, September 3, 2009

Dear Extra Credit:

You printed a letter of mine April 2, outlining questions and concerns I have had since my eldest daughter was given the Degrees of Reading Power test in second grade. I said the letter from the county that comes home with the test results is difficult to understand, and I asked for our kids' national percentile rank to be included with the information we're given.

I also suggested that we be told the average Arlington County raw score instead of, or in addition to, the average national raw score. Finally, I asked why we continue to test kids who score well on the test, when it seems that the test is used strictly to identify candidates for remediation.

In your response, you said county officials agreed with me. "They have resolved to make future communications more parent-friendly," you said. "The grade 4 letter has gotten a combing, with tangled language hopefully removed."

My daughter just finished sixth grade, so she was tested again this spring. I compared the most recent letter from the county with the letters from previous years. The only change was that the word "please" was removed from one paragraph.

I am actually a big fan of Arlington public schools; my kids are thriving in them. I am just trying to help the schools communicate effectively with parents regarding their kids' achievement levels. I don't think what I'm suggesting is even controversial, so it does strike me now as unresponsive for the schools not to change this letter after I've been calling it to their attention for four years. I understand that our new superintendent, Patrick K. Murphy, has a background in evaluation. Perhaps he will be sympathetic.

Karen Lewis

Arlington County

It looks to me as though Arlington fumbled the ball, after promising us a touchdown. We Redskins fans are used to such behavior, but we Arlington schools fans are not. County spokeswoman Linda Erdos was, as usual, disarmingly frank: "Ms. Lewis is, unfortunately, correct. The grade 6 letter that went out to parents this spring went out in the old format." The grade 4 letter was revised, but the changes did not make it to the grade 2 or grade 6 letters. "We promise to do better," Erdos said. She also wanted to emphasize that the tests are designed to keep track of how successful teachers are with all students, not just those who need remediation.

Dear Extra Credit:

I read recently in another publication about a "rising senior" and then came across your quote of "a rising seventh-grader" in your Aug. 20 column ["Student Trying to Get Ahead Gets Left Behind."] I was a public school special education teacher in the 1960s for the Houston Independent School District and the Montgomery County school system. I have no idea what is meant by "rising" in these instances. Common sense would seem to indicate that "rising" in the educational sense means "upcoming." Would that be the correct assumption? Also, when did this term come into use? I am feeling out of step with the present.

Richard G. Holmes

Ellicott City

This is the sort of question we word-freak journalists love. I shared it with the newsroom and then asked researcher Meg Smith to find an answer. Many reporters and editors raised in less civilized parts of the country, including your Californian columnist, had never heard it until they got here. They thought it was an effete affectation -- an "East Coast prep thing," as one called it. They might have something there. Many of the earliest uses of the term are in college sports stories, Smith found. Here is its first use in The Post, on June 5, 1927, which must have been a slow news day: "Chapel Hill, N.C., June 4 -- Peddy Waddill, of Henderson, N.C., a rising senior, has been unanimously elected university cheer leader for next year."

Dear Extra Credit:

I'm flabbergasted that an educator in the Aug. 20 column would defend cut-and-paste as an appropriate learning exercise for high-schoolers. Could it be that teachers prefer to assign posters because they're easier to grade than papers?

Pat Terrell


I will have more on this. Many readers share your astonishment.

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number, to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mail extracredit@washpost.com.

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