High schools get reading Rx

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Ready or not, like it or not, many Chicago high schools are adding reading instruction to their curriculum.

Under the School Reform Board’s accountability policies, they have little choice. Schools with less than 20 percent of their students reading at or above the national average are put on probation, which can lead to the dismissal of the principal and even teachers. While many probation schools have made significant gains in math, only 6 of the original 38 have raised their reading scores enough to shed the designation.

Further, the School Board is introducing end-of-course tests aimed at ensuring all students master the standard high school curriculum.

“I am still running into science teachers who are saying, ‘Why do I have to teach reading?’ ” says Karen Boran, a consultant who has worked with six high schools on probation. “I tell them, ‘Your students cannot process the texts you give them. That’s why you have to teach reading.’ ”

Part of the problem for Chicago’s high schools is that many of its elementary schools, despite progress, have failed to equip all their children with reading skills needed even in the elementary grades. Chicago does not have tests that measure whether elementary students are meetings its standards. However, their performance on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS), which are designed to rank students, shows that, as a whole, they continue to lag behind their peers nationwide. Last year, 39 percent of Chicago’s 8th-graders scored at or above the national average in reading; that’s 11 percentage points short of the national average of 50 percent.

Another part of the problem is that even students who read well by elementary school standards can have a hard time in high school, where the nature of reading assignments changes dramatically. In elementary school, stories dominate. In high school, informational text is the stock in trade.

Barbara Radner, director of the Center for Urban Education at DePaul University, says that 7th-and 8th-grade teachers should give students more guidance in reading nonfiction. “That’s where they should be learning how to do this in the first place,” she says.

However, Connie Bridge, associate dean of the College of Education at University of Illinois at Chicago, says, “Even students who had done well in text demands from K through 8 still need support as they engage with longer, more complicated text [in high school].”

Standardized tests reflect the increased reading challenge. While 39 percent of 8th-graders were at or above national norms in reading, only 29 percent of freshmen scored at or above national norms on the high school equivalent of the ITBS, the Tests of Achievement and Proficiency (TAP).

Some of the decline may be due to the exodus of many high-scoring 8th-graders from the public school system, but experts say the 9th-grade test is significantly harder than the 8th-grade test. For example, students face nearly twice as many questions demanding inference, or reading between the lines, on the 9th-grade test, according to Mary Dunne, director of the Office of Accountability’s high school reading team.

Plus, the TAP may be especially difficult in 9th grade, says G. Alfred Hess Jr., a Northwestern University professor studying high schools. Hess tracked individual students’ scores over time and found many met national norms in both 8th and 11th grades but not in 9th grade.

Chicago’s promotion policy, which bars especially low-scoring students from high school, has raised the preparation level of entering freshmen. (In 1994, a mere 20 percent scored at or above national norms in reading.) However, from the teacher’s perspective, the improved numbers may not mean much for their teaching. At the lowest-scoring high schools, half the students still score in the bottom quartile, down from 75 percent six years ago, Hess reports.

At Marshall High School, a probation school in East Garfield Park, reading coordinator Barry Little says he sees a difference in today’s freshmen. “Yes, I think they are better,” he says. “I don’t think they are better to the degree that people would like us to believe.”

Schools have responded to accountability’s new demands with a wide variety of strategies: special reading classes, time for reading student-chosen materials, computer programs that teach vocabulary, teaching teachers reading strategies they can incorporate into their lessons, schoolwide vocabulary words and practice in reading TAP-style passages and answering questions.

Programs aimed at raising test scores with test-like activities are especially popular. For example, a 10-week test-prep curriculum developed by the CPS Office of Accountability’s reading team for use during advisory periods is in use at 50 of the city’s 92 high schools, up from 30 in February.

Hodge podge

Some observers worry that schools have latched onto programs without clearly identifying what their kids need. Consultant Boran says that lower-tier schools “are shooting literacy arrows up in the air and hoping one will hit something. They’re just hoping to God they bring something down. They are not aiming. A lot of their interventions are not coordinated.”

Dissatisfied with the track record of external partners in raising reading scores at high schools on probation, the Office of Accountability created an in-house reading team that currently works with 11 high schools. (See story.)

Inside high schools, there’s typically little expertise in reading instruction. Unlike some other states, Illinois does not require reading courses for high school teacher certification-though that is about to change. In Chicago, only 38 high school teachers have reading endorsements, meaning they have had sufficient course work to teach reading and diagnose reading problems, according to the CPS personnel department. That’s fewer than one per school.

But schools are beginning to get more mileage from the expertise they have. In the past, reading specialists at the high school level worked alone with the weakest readers. “The job of the reading specialist is changing,” observes Dunne, formerly a reading specialist at Marist High, a Catholic school in Mount Greenwood. “Instead of working with a few select students who need remediation, it’s to share expertise schoolwide.”

Also, an additional 113 high school teachers are taking reading courses at local universities to get endorsements, according to the Department of Instruction for Reading, Language Arts and Social Science (formerly the Teachers Academy for Professional Development). This effort is funded by money from the federal Goals 2000 program.

At a number of schools, special efforts have been focused on students with the best chance of getting over the national average and, therefore, pulling the school off probation.

While Boran is no fan of standardized tests, she and fellow consultant Mary Massie are tailoring strategies for freshmen and sophomores in the 38th to 49th percentiles-the 50th percentile is the national norm. At Wells High School, for example, if 50 to 60 students in that category answer three to five more questions correctly on the TAP reading tests, the school can get off probation, according to Boran.

Target groups

All of Wells’s freshmen and sophomores should benefit, Boran stresses, because teachers are using the strategies with all their students. “We want to help the teachers focus on the test in a way that’s ethical,” she says. “Not by teaching to the test, but presenting skills in a way that will take the test and personalize it.”

Similarly, while all freshmen at Hirsch High School are taking reading, English Department Chair Michael Blake says, “Generally we have some target groups we’re working on.” These groups receive double training in reading strategies, while others might have them presented only once. “When we find success, we try to pass that on to the other groups,” he adds.

Finding materials and methods that work with adolescents is a struggle for all schools.

“I think everybody’s grasping for strategies here,” says Anthony Bryk, director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research. “I think this is a big issue. Even nationally there’s not much out there.”

“There is not a lot of commercially prepared material for underperforming high school readers,” concurs Ron Browne, a member of the Office of Accountability’s reading team.

Reading experts agree that with teenagers, especially those who have had repeated bad experiences with reading, it’s essential to engage their interest. For example, teaching phonics in high school can’t be a rerun of “see Spot run.”

Adolescents resent being treated like babies, notes Ann Marie Longo, director of the highly regarded Boys Town Reading Center. Demonstrating phonics with simple, one-syllable words is sure to turn them off. “When we teach the silent ‘e’ rule, instead of using words like kite or bike, which are words many students can read by sight, we use words like umpire or entire,” she says.

Even teens who know how to decode words often need help to understand what they read. “For many adolescents, reading something just means you have passed your eyes over the words or read the words aloud,” says Ruth Schoenbach, director of the Strategic Literacy Initiative at WestEd, a regional education laboratory based in Oakland, Cal. “It isn’t equivalent for them to understanding or engaging in what you read. The idea that reading is an active process is a foreign concept.”

National groups are taking up the challenge. Last September, the International Reading Association released a position statement urging educators and policymakers to invest more in improving adolescent literacy. In April, it was the hot topic in their on-line bookstore, and this month IRA released a new collection of strategies to help middle and high schoolers read better.

“Many people think reading scores with older students cannot be moved,” Jane Greene, academic dean at the National Institute for Continuing Education, told participants in a recent symposium on adolescent literacy sponsored by the National Center for Education and the Economy. But, she argues, teens’ reading scores can rise “most important of all, when teachers receive the professional development they need.”