Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Raising Reading Scores and NAEP: We Can Only Go Up

I've been thinking about my students a lot lately; more so than usual, after looking at the latest NAEP scores which I wrote briefly about here.

To recap, Louisiana is once again at the bottom, or near bottom, of the list.  In reading, only 25% of our students are "proficient." We are tied at 48 with Mississippi; New Mexico is ranked 50 at 24%.

This really bothers me.

So, what does that score mean?  What, exactly, is "proficient?"

Proficient is defined this way:
When it comes to reading, eighth-grade “students performing at the Proficient level should be able to provide relevant information and summarize main ideas and themes,” says NCES. “They should be able to make and support inferences about a text, connect parts of a text, and analyze text features. Students performing at this level should also be able to fully substantiate judgments about content and presentation of content.”
About the same time I started fretting about the NAEP results, I came across this article on the Cult of Pedagogy blog urging teachers to "stop killing reading."

And in that article, the author referenced a book called Readicide by Kelly Gallagher, which I immediately ordered and have now read.

Gallagher's book was so on point I kept highlighting passages and sharing them with colleagues.

In my twenty-three year career I've seen more than a few kids who don't like to read, have never voluntarily read a book, and have no idea where the school library is.  I may not ever turn those kids into bookworms who read three books a week, but at least I have always been able to get them to admire the artistry and message of To Kill a Mockingbird or to relate themes in The Great Gatsby to the real world around them.

Sometimes that admiration is grudging, but it always comes.  It has been one of the highlights of my teaching career to see that light bulb go off over a kid's head when he grasps the symbolism of Mrs. Dubose's camellias or Atticus's shooting of Tim Johnson, the rabid dog.  If you've never seen that happen, that light bulb thing, it's amazing and it warms you all over to know that something great has just rattled the brain cells in that kid and a new understanding of the world around him has occurred.

Maybe I'm overstating it, but I don't think so.

I think Kelly Gallagher advocates for student readers and for teaching the classics quite admirably in his book when he writes:
"When every student in the country reads Romeo and Juliet, it means we all acquire a shared cultural literacy, a sharing that is foundational if we, as a culture are going to be able to communicate with one another."
And earlier in the book, he points out that "Reading Animal Farm is not simply an unusual trip to an English farm; Orwell's classic presents our students with the opportunity to discuss what happens when a citizenry fails to pay attention to its leadership."  It makes students think about the world around them.

The ironies with Fahrenheit 451 are obvious, right?  (But how will kids today know that?  They only read parts of this novel, if at all).

Gallagher's point is that the classic novels we teach in school provide opportunities for students to "rehearse" real world situations and ideas, an opportunity to become wiser under the leadership of a teacher.

It's a valid point.  But beyond the classics, he argues, we also need to provide opportunities for students to read for fun.  Many, many students do not read for the pure enjoyment of getting lost in a book and this is especially true with our underprivileged kids or children that come from impoverished homes.  They come to us with what Gallagher refers to as "word poverty" and spend their entire educational experience trying to catch up.

Why wouldn't we give them every opportunity to do so?

Because we are teaching the test. That's why.

There.  I said it.

Go back to those NAEP results.  We spend all of our time now putting articles and passages in front of students like those that they will see on a test.  We inundate them with multiple choice questions.  We highlight and close read and analyze and use sticky notes and we fill out graphic organizers, we analyze some more, we pick and pick and prod and well, it's no wonder that kids begin to hate to read.

We don't give them "books" any longer, we give them "chunks of text."

We don't give them the freedom to read as long as they wish ("If they want to read the entire novel they can do that on their own, outside of school!").  Instead, we give them chopped up passages to endlessly analyze. Where's the fun?  Where's the engagement?  Where's the love in that?

Gallagher talks about this practice a great deal in his book and its worth your time to read it if you're concerned at all about what Common Core and endless test prep is doing to kids.

The bottom line is that we really should be more interested in creating lifelong readers in our students.  They will carry a love of books and reading forever, long after that test score is gone.

Do we really want a generation of kids who have read nothing but passages and articles?

Imagine a world where cultural references such as "Beware the Ides of March!" are meaningless!  Or "Stay gold, Ponyboy...stay gold."  It breaks my heart to turn my sophomores out into the world never having encountered Mayella Ewell or Atticus Finch.  To Kill a Mockingbird is now "summer reading" in our district for freshmen and The Grapes of Wrath is "summer reading" for sophomores.  Imagine the loss at tackling either of those on your own as a young teenager!

Some districts know that they will likely never return to reading full novels in class again.

Instead, under Common Core, (which in Louisiana is called Louisiana Believes), students read selected chapters of books, or articles about books.  In tenth grade, for example, you read only the Prologue of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and then lots of articles about ethics.

You get the idea.

It's my belief, and I believe there is science and data (that ever present golden key - data) - to back me up, that kids who read a lot are better writers and have a much more developed vocabulary.  They are more rounded.  They are better equipped to deal with the unknown.  So, teach a kid to read for fun, and you've created something truly wonderful and given that kid a lifelong gift.

Is that enough to raise NAEP scores?  Probably not.  There are a lot of other factors that go into those scores: poverty, parental involvement, technology access, life-trauma, environment, etc.  Those scores reflect a whole plethora of factors beyond reading comprehension.

But hey, we've got no place to go but up.  Let's bring reading back into the curriculum.  And I mean reading fiction (we currently read about 75% non-fiction in grade 10 ELA), long books, novels, not just "chunks of text" or Xeroxed passages.  We need to give kids time to read IN SCHOOL and not just on their own.  What tenth grader can truly grapple with  The Grapes of Wrath without some help?!

My bottom line:  Kids need time to read, time without having to organize, annotate, highlight, determine this or that - just time to read to get lost in the pages.

Do that, and I guarantee we will have smarter kids; now, whether the test scores reflect that or not is a whole 'nother kettle of fish, as they say.

1 comment:

Brenda Teal said...

I have nothing to add here. This "argument" is well-stated with solid reasoning that backs up the premise. Many if us who have taught and raised readers agree wholeheartedly.