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Sharpening students' reading skills

Superintendent's Corner

At our Board Meeting last Tuesday evening, several Sherwood teachers delivered a thorough and engaging presentation on literacy. For me, this was an accurate and encouraging snapshot of remarkable progress that has unfolded in the last year. I believe our collective work in literacy is the most important challenge for all of us to address with our children. Simply stated, reading ability is the most fundamental and important skill set for our students to acquire.

Across the state and nation, research and attention to literacy has increased dramatically. While elementary schools and staff have always maintained a traditional emphasis on sound reading skill development, the most profound shift has occurred at the secondary level. There is a growing awareness of the number of secondary students who are not equipped with the complex literacy skill set required to thrive and succeed in the post-secondary environment and the world of work. Middle schools and high schools are shifting curricula, staffing, and resources to address this pivotal need.

Looking at traditional measures, Sherwood students have a proven record of success in reading proficiency, especially at the elementary level. All three of our elementary schools score close to, or above, the top proficiency measures of reading provided by the state. Our secondary schools have tended to show scores significantly above the state average for the last few years. At first glance, one might question the need to address a larger challenge in reading proficiency based upon these traditional measures.

A closer look yields an entirely different interpretation of our progress. In the last two years, District leaders reviewed Sherwood student scores over an eight-year window of time. We paid very close attention to longitudinal scores… scores over time from grade to grade. The results were very clear: the tendency is for more and more students to not meet the proficiency targets with each succeeding year. This trend is mirrored across the state.

As we studied and analyzed our performance, two key conclusions began to emerge. First, we recognized that our secondary staffs were not equipped to teach pure reading strategies to our students. Like most other secondary schools in Oregon and across the nation, we have operated with the traditional assumption that most students entering middle school and high school are prepared with comprehensive reading skills. The assumption has been, and to some extent continues to be, that students in grades K -3 learn to read, and all students from grades 4-12 read to learn. Instructional emphasis beyond the third grade has focused on content mastery with less and less regard for pure reading skill development.

A second conclusion is more complex, but absolutely pivotal in understanding the literacy challenge. In Oregon, we have relied almost exclusively on one measure to reflect individual student and school performance in reading. This measure is the Oregon State Assessment Test for Reading, or OSAT. This test is fundamentally flawed.

Addressing testing issues

When the OSATs were developed over the last decade, little work was done to correlate the test items and difficulty with an eye toward grade-to-grade calibration. Restated, what emerged were tests that tend to measure progress very generously at the third and fifth grade levels, and corresponding tests at the eighth and tenth grades that were disproportionately more rigorous. The net impact of this delivery has been the creation of a "false positive" read. Across the state we have communicated to elementary students and their parents that students were on track with proficiency in reading that would prepare them well for secondary work, when in fact, many of these students were struggling in secondary classrooms due to serious, but undetected gaps in literacy skills.

To address this challenge at the elementary level, we began by providing reading coaches at each school. These key instructional leaders have already exerted a profound impact in our delivery. They offer classroom based demonstrations, one-on-one support, as well as professional training for teachers and educational assistants. They have vastly increased our range of assessments, which allow for a more thorough understanding and true reflection of accurate reading ability. In all of our schools, we have utilized DIBELs (dynamic indicators of basic early literacy), DRA, and other measures of rate, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Not surprisingly, we have discovered many students who scored well above the standard on the state tests who have serious gaps in reading skill areas. Our staff members are working diligently with these kids.

There is another subtle shift at the elementary level as well. Many of our classroom teachers recognize the need for, and are shifting to a greater emphasis on non-fiction text and materials. As I think back upon my elementary days in the sixties, so much of our reading was focused on fictional text. Our current students are living in a much different world, however. The sheer volume of informational text is massive compared to my early years, and we know our kids will enter a world of work that requires them to process and analyze increasingly complex material. The challenge is much more profound.

We also recognize the need to elevate OSAT target scores at the elementary level. Earlier this year our Director of Curriculum, John Kelly, rolled out a series of new targets that are far more rigorous. These Sherwood Standards represent a much more accurate predictor of secondary and post-secondary success. Our staff understands this is a rigorous academic challenge, one that will best serve our students in the long run.

While our staff members are addressing this elevated challenge at the elementary level, I am equally excited and encouraged by our work at our secondary schools. Both the middle school and high school have benefited from full time literacy coaches this year. In addition to intervening and supporting students who need extra help with literacy skills, these professionals have offered excellent modeling and training for our content area teachers.

These coaches are also key leaders of literacy teams that have formed at each school.

One of our big shifts in the last year is to ask all secondary teachers to adopt specific reading strategies for their subject areas. Some of these are as simple as a pre-reading game plan prior to engaging in a chapter of American history, or a meta-cognitive approach…thinking about how I think…prior to processing complex scientific text. These "student owned strategies" allow students to navigate the wide range of materials they are required to master. There are a series of these practical student strategies that show proven success, and initial feedback from secondary teachers is promising.

Our secondary teams are also developing deeper skills with assessment While in previous years there was little to look for beyond the state reading tests, now we see both schools utilizing multiple measures and developing strategies to address shortcomings. This shift to using assessments to inform instruction at the classroom level is pivotal in making a difference for many students.

Our work in literacy is not limited to our elementary and secondary schools. Our Board has not only provided great support and encouragement, they have stepped forward by modeling literacy as well. Earlier this year we made a shared commitment to read three books together and to review them at our public meetings. Our most recent selection is "Three Cups of Tea", a marvelous story about mountain climber Greg Mortensen.

On an unsuccessful attempt to climb K-2, Mortensen is lost on his descent, and is rescued by impoverished villagers in Pakistan's Karakoram Himalaya. This American makes a promise to build a school for the children of the village. Along the way his commitment grows, and he establishes the Central Asia Institute, building over 50 schools for the poorest children of Pakistan and Afghanistan. As the author notes, Mortensen has provided hope and inspiration to thousands of children.

Our continued work and sustained efforts in literacy should be no less than this. If reading is truly the fundamental gateway skill set required for success in our complex and changing world, all of our children deserve our best efforts in this vitally important area.