Sunday, December 27, 2015

"Most Sacramento-area students miss reading standard on new test"

If this test is any indication of the future prospects of children growing up in the Sacramento region, we are in trouble: Most kids in the third grade cannot read at grade level, according to a thorough article in The Sacramento Bee:

"Local teachers are redoubling their efforts after a new statewide test administered last year showed that 60 percent of third-graders in the Sacramento region performed below the state standard in English. The region includes Sacramento, El Dorado, Placer and Yolo counties."

Studies indicate that falling behind by the third grade portends ill for the future:

"Three decades of research have shown that students who can’t read at grade level by that point are more likely to drop out of high school than their reading-proficient peers. ... Third grade is a predictor of future academic success because it is typically when students begin reading more complex texts, said Susan Neuman, an education professor at the University of Michigan and former assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education."

Not surprisingly, bad academic performance tends to be concentrated in poorer neighborhoods. Since the adoption of the higher Common Core standards, children in poorer areas have increasingly failed:

"In impoverished communities, students have an even slimmer chance of catching up. ... Seventy-six percent of the region’s poorest kids could not meet standards on the English test, compared to 42 percent of wealthier kids. ...

"Students, regardless of income level, fared worse than under the previous testing system, but low-income schools suffered the steepest performance declines."


The Bee reports that making kids repeat the third grade is one option:

"Some states require that schools hold back third-graders who can’t read at grade level, according to the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan consulting organization. California requires third-graders to take reading tests but allows districts to determine whether to send students to summer school or other programs to catch up."

I am all for holding back a child a year, if that means the core reasons he was falling behind are addressed and fixed. However, it likely won't work if the source of his troubles are not addressed.

Will better teaching methods do the trick?

"Sacramento-area school districts have a variety of programs to improve reading in the lower grades. Some focus on improving instruction by offering teacher training, while others are expanding summer and after-school programs."

With 60 percent failing to make the grade, it seems obvious that the "reading program" approach is at the very least insufficient. That's not to say it does no good. But it is not enough.

Professor Neuman thinks enriching a child's vocabulary early on will make him a better reader:

"Neuman said the answer to improving student reading is easy. 'We’ve got to get kids into good preschool programs to accelerate their vocabulary. If a child has poor vocabulary coming into school, they are likely to lag throughout their schooling. It’s a tragic statement, but it’s true.'”

Having parents read to their kids will help accomplish Neuman's objective:

"Educators at local districts say parents can help improve their children’s literacy by reading to them."

My belief is that this reading problem, and almost all educational problems, are the consequence of bad parenting. How much school programs or classroom teachers can really do when a child is coming from a bad home is limited.

In the bigger picture scope of this issue, we need to incentivize people who are not ready to properly raise children from having them in the first place. When the father is absent and the mother has no ability to earn a decent living, the victim of this circumstance will be the kids. Children whose parents completed their education, worked for a few years and gained some marketable skills, got married and then had kids don't normally grow up poor. Our troubles start from the fact that we encourage poor, young, uneducated women who are not in stable relationships to give birth and then rear kids that they are ill-prepared to raise. If a woman (or girl) like that has a kid, she gets all sorts of freebies (housing, cash, food stamps, medical care, etc.). But if she is responsible and waits until she is ready to raise children, she gets nothing. That is what needs to be reversed.

In the small picture scope of this issue, we need to require all parents who receive any public benefits (including food stamps) to take weekly parenting classes, where they meet in a group situation with a parenting counselor who teaches them how to raise their kids. Among the lessons which needs to be taught is for parents to read to their children and help give those kids an enriched vocabulary before they enter school. The parents also need to be taught to be a part of their kids' education: To regularly monitor their homework assignments; to meet with teachers and find out how well their kids are performing; and when their kids are not performing as well as possible to know what resources are available (such as tutors or after-school programs) which can be used to help those children catch up.

On a side note, I would add that there is likely a yardstick issue which makes this problem appear to be somewhat worse than it likely is: All kids are tested and lumped together. That aggregation of scores can be misleading.

Students, for example, who are English learners, but far from proficient in their second language should be removed from the pool and reported upon separately. If, say, 25 percent of kids in a given area are recent immigrants who do not yet speak English well and virtually all of those kids test at below grade level, keeping their scores in the pool will nearly double the percentage of children who have failed the test. Those kids may have no problems at home which need resolving. They may be getting very good classroom instruction and help from a reading specialist. And still, because of their ESL status, they cannot read at grade level. It simply confuses the problem when these kids' scores are not reported apart from the rest.

Another yardstick issue is the inclusion of the test scores of children with retardation or severe learning disabilities. Again, if these children are not reading at grade level, it's not the fault of their parents, their teachers or academic enrichment programs. And if a school or a district has a higher number of such kids -- poor children are more likely to be retarded -- keeping their test scores in with the others makes it appear that the school itself or the parents need more improvement than they really do.

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