2020 | Schools

‘A whole system failure’: Test scores indicate half of MCPS third-graders can’t read at grade level

Advocates fear more students will fall behind during virtual instruction

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About half of MCPS third-grade students didn't meet reading proficiency benchmarks on a state assessment in the 2018-19 school year, the most recent data available.

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Tucked in bed beside her mom, Eloise Karpf’s brow furrows as she brushes her loose blonde curls from her forehead.

“What does ‘forgive me’ mean?” the 8-year-old asks.

Her mom, Courtney Patterson, stops reading again — Eloise asks a lot of questions — and gently explains.

Eloise wants to read, but it’s easier for her to listen. As she enters third grade, she is at a lower reading level than her peers and she struggles.

And she’s not alone.

In Montgomery County, half of the approximately 23,400 third-graders ended the 2018-19 school year unable to read at or above grade level, according to the results of a state assessment obtained by Bethesda Beat. Advocates fear that while children learn from home due to COVID-19, missing close to a year of face-to-face instruction, more children will fall through the cracks.

“We do run the risk that the learning loss students experience now will be the enduring legacy of this pandemic,” said Ralph Smith, director of The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a national advocacy group. “Up to this point, there has been a significant, whole system failure and … the impact of the pandemic could cause a generation of students to suffer severe lifelong consequences.”

Third grade is considered a crucial year for reading literacy because it is the final year children are “learning to read” before transitioning to “reading to learn.” If they cannot read at the end of third grade, about half of the curriculum taught in fourth grade will be incomprehensible, according to research by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

As a result, thousands of local students could fall behind and be unable to keep up with grade-level curriculum in any class. This has been tied to higher dropout rates, higher rates of anxiety and depression in children and teens, and increased behavioral problems.

Some teachers and school district officials argue that the results of the standardized test cannot be used to measure students’ overall progress without also examining their in-class performance on a case-by-case basis.

In a recent interview, school board member Jeanette Dixon called the MCPS third-grade reading data “disgraceful.”

“We can do better than that,” she said. “It has to be a priority going forward.”

Montgomery County (50%) has a higher percentage of third-graders proficient in reading than the state (about 35%) and the country (33%). But, while Montgomery County is above average overall, some schools in the district struggle significantly more than others, according to the state assessment results.

Broken out by school and demographic, the data show that schools with higher concentrations of students living in poverty were more likely to have lower rates of proficiency. Schools with more students in poverty generally have more minority students.

At Harmony Hills Elementary School in Aspen Hill, where 81% of students receive free or reduced-priced lunches (FARMS), 16.5% of third-graders could read at or above grade level. At Seven Locks Elementary School in Bethesda, with a FARMS rate of less than 5%, 91.2% of students were proficient in reading.

Problems for English learners and special education students

Non-native English speakers and students in special education programs also were more apt to fall behind.

Eloise, the Rock View student, has a rare genetic condition and has received special education services and targeted therapy interventions since she was 6 months old. Therapists and doctors determined early that she had significant hearing and vision problems and acted quickly to intervene.

Still, she finished first grade reading about eight levels behind her peers, a lag her mother attributed to a poor teacher-student match.

In second grade, when Eloise connected better with her teachers, she flourished. By March, she was reading just one level behind her classmates.

Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit, closing school buildings. Instead of receiving 15 hours per week of special education services, Eloise had just one 20-minute session per week. Her sessions didn’t begin until seven weeks after school buildings were closed, Patterson said.

“I’ve watched her struggle her whole life with things that come really naturally to other kids. … There’s recognition on her part that she’s different,” Patterson said. “I do have a lot of sympathy for the situation the teachers found themselves in, but, as a parent, I was extremely frustrated watching her struggle and likely regress.”

Just one of Rock View’s 26 special education students scored a 4 or 5 on the state assessment in the 2018-19 school year, indicating they “met” or “exceeded” expectations. Overall, 19.5% of students at the school met that benchmark.

In MCPS, about 28% of low-income students met the state assessment’s benchmarks, as did about 20% of English language learners. Overall, 62% of white students met the benchmarks.

But for each student in Montgomery County who struggles, there is one who has found success, the data show.

For students who read at or above grade level, they have found success in other subjects, parents said.

In a recent email to Bethesda Beat, Elizabeth DuVal wrote that her son, Sam, a rising fourth-grader at Lucy V. Barnsley Elementary School, has used his above-average reading proficiency to learn about animals and science, his passions.

Sam is in a French immersion program, and DuVal believes his ability to read in English “certainly helped him along with learning French, as well.”

Leah Micheals’ daughter is a rising fourth-grader at Rock Creek Valley Elementary School and reads at grade level. She said anything less “would be very detrimental, not only to (her) academic success, but I think also to (her) creativity, empathy, and imaginations.”

At Rock Creek Valley, where about 40% of students met or exceeded literacy benchmarks on the 2018-19 state test (the Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program), Micheals said, teachers have placed their emphasis on flexibility and patience.

Instead of requiring students to read a set number of minutes per week and fill out a reading log, teachers push students to read independently, or have someone read to them, every day.

That makes reading seem less like “work,” said Micheals, a teacher at Richard Montgomery High School.

“I think the more MCPS (at all grade levels) can communicate the importance of reading for its own sake, the better, and the fewer ‘accountability’ measures put upon kids and families (e.g. reading logs or other assignments whose value seems to be mainly in helping students ‘prove’ they read at home), the better,” Micheals wrote in an email. “The best way for a teacher to know if a child is reading at home is to ask the child to talk about what they’re reading, not to make them add up a number of minutes.”

Long-term problems

A research study published in 2010 by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that students who cannot read on grade level at the end of third grade are more likely to not graduate from high school (88% of students in the study who did not earn a diploma were struggling readers in third grade).

Researchers at Yale University recently found that 75% students who were poor readers in third grade remained poor readers through high school.
Students with low literacy have more documented behavioral problems and have been tied to the “school to prison pipeline.”

To break the cycle, school districts must invest in a slate of interventions, Smith, of The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, said. Those include:

• ensuring that all students — especially low-income, special education and English language learners -— have access to Head Start and preschool classes

• combating chronic absences

• enlisting better, more comprehensive diagnostic tests early on to screen for learning disabilities, dyslexia and hearing and vision problems

• partnering with community organizations to combat food and housing insecurity.

In recent years, MCPS and county officials have made progress in many of those areas.

MCPS and the County Council have invested in expanding early childhood education. MCPS has launched a pilot program offering nearly year-round schooling at two high-poverty schools and often partners with local food pantries to promote distribution events.

But without more focused efforts in school districts, including MCPS, students will continue to struggle throughout their academic careers, and, for many, the rest of their lives, Smith said.

“People sometimes say you need a menu of options, but what you really need is a recipe with everything working together and nothing left out,” he said. “And when people say, ‘What kids can do in third grade can’t really be that important,’ they’re wrong. It really is that consequential.”

Valerie Coll, a third-grade teacher at Flora M. Singer Elementary School in Silver Spring, acknowledged there are students who cannot read at grade level, but said she would caution against putting too much stock in the outcomes of a single test when discussing student achievement.

Testing, she said, is like taking a class picture. It captures a “point in time” and should be paired with the context of students’ performance in the classroom, Coll said. There, teachers can determine if a student is struggling to master vocabulary or comprehension. Then, they can create a plan to intervene.

“An emphasis on testing is a shorthand people use because it’s easy for people who don’t teach to look at that and say, ‘Why aren’t you doing better?’ ” she said. “But when you go deeper, there’s a whole range of things that go far beyond a test on a day.”

Elementary school is not about whether a student was proficient on a standardized test, but rather if the students move to each next grade with the foundational skills to be successful, she said.

But, still, there are some students that slip through without skills they need.

“That’s the soul-crushing part,” Coll said.

‘There aren’t excuses’

In her four years on the Board of Education, Dixon has been a staunch advocate for third-grade reading proficiency. Rarely is there a meeting when she doesn’t gently — or sternly — remind senior staff members that the work on other initiatives won’t matter if students can’t read and comprehend complex texts.

Dixon led an effort to add funds to last year’s budget to hire a dyslexia specialist. She was successful, with unanimous support from her seven colleagues. She also spearheaded the approval of a resolution that requires, for the first time, that the school district provide data annually to school board members about third-grade reading proficiency.

In an interview on Thursday afternoon, MCPS Chief of Engagement, Innovation and Operations Derek Turner said the data about third graders’ reading proficiency are a “good marker for where we need to focus our attention and effort,” particularly in earlier grades.

“The third-grade piece is the outcome,” Turner said. “It’s everything leading up to that point — expanded pre-K, extended school year programs, summer school opportunities and so on — that sets children up for success.”

For Dixon, the importance of the work can be boiled down to one sentence: “I think that the ability to read and comprehend what you read is a basic human right.”

“We can’t afford — our students can’t afford — for us to not push forward on this and do better,” Dixon said. “We have the data now. There aren’t excuses.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com