2021 | Schools

Elementary reading program shows big bump in proficiency after one year

District will expand to eight more schools in the fall

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Despite an unconventional year fraught with challenges and disruption, dozens of students at East Silver Spring Elementary School who couldn’t read on grade level in September met the standard — and often exceeded it — by the end of the school year.

As Montgomery County Public Schools grapples with how to bolster low elementary reading proficiency rates, it piloted a program at East Silver Spring that focused on consistent data monitoring and professional development to identify and target individual students’ weaknesses.

The result: a 26 percentage point increase in the number of second-grade students able to read on grade level, and a 29 percentage point increase in third grade, according to MCPS data.

“I think this is great and really exciting,” school board member Pat O’Neill said.

The results are promising for a district that has struggled, like others across the country, in recent years to ensure its elementary school students are proficient in reading — particularly by third grade, long acknowledged by education researchers to be a pivotal age.

In 2019, half of all MCPS third-graders couldn’t read on grade level, according to state data obtained by Bethesda Beat at the time. Experts raised concerns that the inability for the students to read and comprehend materials would make it harder for children to learn. Research suggests students who are not proficient in reading in elementary school are more likely to drop out of high school and face serious economic disadvantages later in life.

In August, MCPS partnered with the Lavinia Group, a company that helps schools “close the opportunity gap” by providing training and teaching resources.

To start the program, teachers involved assessed their students’ reading level by the third week of school in September. Throughout the year, teachers were given training, helped with goal-setting for students and received “in-the-moment” coaching and feedback about their teaching.

Sometimes, classes and individual lessons were recorded and teachers were taught how to analyze the videos to find areas for improvement.

Teachers and students regularly set individual goals and the students were assessed periodically to track their progress and adjust lessons in real time.

By December, students had shown marked improvements. The percentage of students reading on grade level in second grade had increased from 47% to 59%, and from 44% to 63% in third grade. In fourth grade, where 0% of students not in an accelerated reading program could read on grade level in September, 11% were meeting the benchmark in December.

In April, 68% of second graders were proficient in reading, as well as 70% of third graders and 15% of fourth graders.

In June, nearly 75% of second and third graders were reading at or above their grade level, well above the national average of about 35%.

Based on the program’s early success at East Silver Spring, MCPS plans an expansion to eight additional schools in the fall, most of which have large concentrations of students in poverty.

The new schools are:

• Burtonsville Elementary
• Cannon Road Elementary
• Glenallan Elementary
• Rachel Carson Elementary
• Judith A. Resnik Elementary
• Rosemont Elementary
• Sligo Creek Elementary
• Watkins Mill Elementary

“I think that it’s always been important to see a return on our investments and results from our efforts, and so this looks great and I’m glad we’re expanding it,” said school board member Rebecca Smondrowski.

Student school board member Hana O’Looney praised the success of the program during a school board meeting on Thursday, but said she was concerned about the amount of testing required to track students’ progress.

Renee Pace, a reading specialist at East Silver Spring, said the tests are administered orally, rather than written, posing less of a strain to complete.

Associate Superintendent Diane Morris said she thinks the pilot program has given district staff the foundation to “carry this out beyond our partnership” or if the grant funding the program is not renewed.

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