As spring arrives, the cherry blossoms start to bloom, the daffodils open their petals towards the sun, and high schools across the country begin their own feverish rite of spring, end of course test intervention and remediation. Schools will hold after school opportunities to help students prepare for a reading test that they must pass. In my state, Virginia, if students don’t pass the test, they don’t graduate, the school’s graduation rate is affected, and accreditation is considered. All this is not to say that schools don’t want to do what is absolutely best for students, because we do. We know that a high school diploma can make the difference between a mediocre job and a career. But we don’t grant a high school diploma unless a student passes the reading test. The irony is that, undoubtedly, when we sit down with these students to help them prepare, we will be doing little reading at all.
What are the costs of not reading well? The Alliance for Excellent Education, estimates the cost in terms of lost wages over a lifetime due to low literacy skills is around $335 billion per year. According to Reading at Risk, a survey conducted by the National Endowment of Arts, there is a sharp divide in reading skills of incarcerated adults versus non-prisoners. On the flip side, those who read more for pleasure exercise and volunteer more. They even vote more. And students are not going to read more, are not going to become avid readers, if they are not reading. Students should be engaged in what they are reading in order to become more competent readers. Not surprisingly, reading more makes us better readers. The Department of Education reports that frequency of reading for pleasure correlates strongly with better test scores in reading and writing. Students who read outside of school see more vocabulary, reading comprehension, verbal fluency, and background knowledge growth, all of which are skills students need in order to pass the reading test. Right now, there is a decline in voluntary reading rates among teenagers while at the same time reading skills in schools remain stagnant or worsen. A required reading test is not the problem. Students graduating from high school should have the skills and strategies to pass the test. The problem, instead, is that in this era of high stakes testing and accountability, schools, divisions, and states have lost track of the original goal of the test, to ensure that all students who graduate from high school in the United States are competent readers. Instead, we are focused on teaching for and to a test.
According to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), our country’s 4th grade reading scores are slowly moving up and are the highest they have been in the past 33 years. This is great news as it shows the achievement gap is shrinking with our elementary school population. Unfortunately, the numbers are much different for our adolescent learners. The 2013 average reading score for adolescents has gone down from the first assessment and remains unchanged since 2009. In Virginia, only 36% of eighth grade students scored at or above proficiency level on the NAEP reading test. Students with disabilities and English language learners are often struggling readers, and schools have a difficult time meeting accreditation as these subgroups continue to score poorly on state reading tests. In fact, the achievement gap among high school seniors with and without disabilities is growing.
In our current era of accountability, it is required for states to have a reading test in order to be accountable to the federal government. States need to show that students are making adequate progress in reading. These scores are not only used for accountability at a state level but also on a more local level. Community members look at these scores in an effort to understand the needs of a school or division. Unfortunately, when we look at the demographics of the students we are currently cajoling to stay after school for extra test preparation, we don’t see good results. Last year, although 90% of students in Virginia passed the end of course reading test, only 62% of students with disabilities and 70% of limited English proficient students passed. This, in turn, is affecting Virginia’s accountability score for the federal government, as students with disabilities and limited English proficient gap groups did not make adequate progress.
Instead of prepping students to pass a specific test, schools should focus on teaching students how to read better. Schools can do this by teaching students at the appropriate reading level and using explicit instruction while at the same time increasing teachers’ professional development on literacy. Students need to be reading high interest books that aren’t too difficult or they will give up and not read at all. English language learners may start school with little literacy preparation which, according to the NAEP study, results in only 3% of English language learners in the 8th grade scoring at or above proficient in reading. These students will not pass a test by having test prep. Instead, they should be reading, analyzing, and talking about books and passages that they can read so that they can do the rigorous work asked of them.
In Reading Next, a Carnegie Corporation report, researchers map out fifteen elements of effective adolescent literacy programs, none of which include test preparation. Instead, this report focuses on the importance of explicit instruction in comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, writing, and motivation for struggling readers. Schools should be providing these literacy interventions in the school day every day, not just after school as the test looms near. Time must be spent in class with texts in order to read and write effectively. Research suggests that these texts should ideally consist of good literature on and slightly above students’ reading level to grow as readers. Professional development should be provided for teachers so that students who struggle can work on strategic reading skills in all their content classes.
We cannot better prepare students for the test by having them practice process of elimination in answering the multiple choice questions. Instead, we must require a shift in instruction to do the hard work of teaching students to be more strategic, aware, and yes, avid readers. We can do this by helping students where they are, providing support where they need, and allowing them time to read. Schools should shift our focus towards real reading in order to better prepare for the reading test. We need to prepare stronger readers to help them be successful both in their professional lives as well as in their community. So as spring is upon us, we cannot get caught up in the flurry of test prep remediation but instead should teach reading by having students read. What a better season for it? For surely, it is not a coincidence that a perfect way to enjoy this spring weather is to sit outside and read a good book.
Jeannie Pfautz is a reading specialist in Charlottesville, Virginia. She loves the opportunities she gets to work on reading and writing every day with her students.