Stagnant reading scores among middle school students in Maryland and Virginia have caught the attention of educators, who are starting to target literacy programs at adolescents after years of focusing mostly on younger children.
In Maryland, one-third of seventh-graders failed the state's reading test this year, about the same number as last year. Reading scores among sixth- and eighth-graders rose at about half the rate of scores in elementary grades.
"We are not happy with what's happening in middle school," said State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick. "People are doing the analysis of the data and saying, 'Hey, what's wrong here?' "
In Virginia, 32 percent of eighth-graders failed a state reading test last year. Thirty-four percent failed in 2003; 31 percent in 2002 and 27 percent in 2001.
The state's reading initiatives mainly have targeted elementary schools.
"Clearly, we need to shift some of that focus to the middle school years," said Charles Pyle, a Virginia Department of Education spokesman. "Or at least broaden the focus."
New data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, billed as the nation's report card, show that the typical 13-year-old could read no better in the 2003-04 school year than the student's counterpart five years earlier. Nine-year-olds, however, showed significant gains.
The findings are adding urgency to local efforts to shore up middle schools. Montgomery County, which has one of the state's highest-performing school systems, will expand literacy programs in the coming year in 14 middle schools. Reading teachers in grades 6, 7 and 8 are getting extra training this summer. "I'm fixated on it right now," said School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast.
Baltimore, which has the state's lowest-performing system, has announced plans to replace 11 of 23 middle school principals and spend $6 million to improve those schools. Most of the schools posted substandard scores on this year's state exams.
Yet middle school advocates are laboring in obscurity as the federal government, states and major business leaders spotlight early reading and high school testing and graduation standards.
Federal funding is far higher for pre-kindergarten and elementary reading programs than for adolescent literacy. An education bill moving through Congress would set aside about $1.2 billion in the next fiscal year for reading intervention, of which just $30 million would be aimed at adolescents. President Bush had sought $200 million for the program known as "Striving Readers," which would benefit middle and high schools. The House of Representatives slashed his proposal.
Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, an advocate for struggling secondary students, said literacy initiatives should not stop in elementary school. "We support the emphasis on early childhood," said Wise, a former West Virginia governor, "but you've got to continue the effort all the way through."
Experts say middle school is the ideal time to identify potential high school dropouts.
"The kids who drop out in ninth or 10th grade, it's because in sixth, seventh or eighth grade, they really fell behind, and no one was there to back them up," said Michael D. Carr, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Carr's group plans to send a 108-page adolescent literacy teaching guide to middle and high schools nationwide by the end of the month. Many area educators are on the case.
In recent years, Fairfax County schools have flagged middle school students who fail at year's end to show grade-level competence in reading or math, according to Linda Whitfield, the middle school instruction director. They are promoted to the next grade and required to take summer school, and, if necessary, remedial courses in the next school year. For example, seventh- and eighth-graders might be enrolled in "power literacy" classes, ninth-graders in "expanding literacy."
Terri Rubin, a Fairfax middle school reading specialist, said training teachers in adolescent reading skills "has been a huge thrust for the last several years."
Such efforts are intensifying across the state. In February, Virginia sponsored a reading leadership institute for principals, teachers and other educators at middle schools in nine school systems.
In the District, Superintendent Clifford B. Janey is pushing for year-round testing to pinpoint struggling students. His efforts seem to focus on the entire school system, not just middle grades.
Virginia and D.C. public schools expect to announce this year's standardized test results soon.
Across Maryland, math scores are rising steadily in grades 3 through 8 -- in some cases, sharply. The statewide passing rate for math leapt five, six or seven percentage points in every grade but one: In sixth grade, it rose 10 points.
In reading, the percentage of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders who passed the test rose five or six points. However, in sixth grade, it rose two points. In grade 7, the rate rose two-tenths of a point. In grade 8, the passing rate rose fewer than 3 points.
State officials say teacher quality is a critical piece of the puzzle. Data show that Maryland middle schools are more likely than elementary or high schools to have large numbers of teachers who are not "highly qualified" under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Such teachers lack a bachelor's degree, full state certification or verification of subject-matter expertise.
In Prince George's County, James Madison Middle School made a 1.6-point gain in the passing rate for seventh-grade reading but made an 11.5-point jump in eighth-grade reading. The Upper Marlboro school, which has been on a state watch list for low achievement, also was found for the first time in several years to be making adequate progress toward universal proficiency, a requirement of the federal law.
Principal Mark King said teachers systematically identified students who were falling behind. About 145 of the school's 900 students attended 90-minute classes before or after school twice a week to catch up. In addition, about 100 students attended remedial summer classes. Extra homework was assigned over Thanksgiving break. High expectations were the rule.
"When the children see that you expect more, they'll try to reach those levels," King said.
In Howard County, Clarksville Middle School reading scores were largely flat. But the school had a splendid excuse: sky-high passing rates. Ninety-eight percent passed the seventh-grade test, the top results in the state.
Principal JoAnn Hutchens said the school teaches reading in almost every class -- in health, art, science and others -- with parents, teachers and students all on board. She articulated a simple recipe for reform: "It's everybody pitching in and working together and doing what they need to do."