Two years ago, the Charleston County School Board declared war on illiteracy among students. About one in five ninth graders was unable to read beyond a fourth grade level.
The war is far from over. But the district is winning some battles. That is a move in the right direction.
Test results from the last school year show that in general, students who have received special instruction in reading have responded well.
And while it is understandable that some taxpayers are skeptical — how could the problem have gone un-addressed for so many years in the first place? — the progress is welcome news.
Better late than never.
Dr. Nancy McGinley, superintendent of schools, is pleased — to an extent. “I do think we’re making progress. We hired 50 associate reading teachers this year” and “plan to hire 20 associate match teachers in Title I kindergartens” in January, she told us.
She is pleased, but not satisfied. She and her staff continue to work on the programs in an effort to further improve reading skills — particularly the sixth grade programs which had less success than the first and third grades’.
And while the number of students reading at an unacceptable level is dropping where special literacy programs are being implemented, there are still more than any educator would like.
For example, in the fall of 2011, 22 percent of first graders selected to receive reading help scored below grade level. By the end of the spring semester of 2012, 13 percent did.
But 13 percent is still too high. Reading is fundamental to learning in school and later in life and in careers.
Scores in higher grades demonstrate more dramatically the need for a concerted and continuing effort to improve reading skills. In third grade, participants reading below grade level dropped from 28.3 percent to 20.4 percent; and in sixth grade, the percentage fell from more than 46 percent to 38.8 percent.
Sadly, that 38.8 percent (about 85 students) is more likely to struggle academically across the board and lag behind their classmates who read adequately.
Among those who struggle most with reading are special education students and those whose primary language is not English. And while it is clearly more of a challenge to help those students get to grade level, it is still important if they are to become productive citizens in a society that relies on reading and writing.
Jon Butzon, who heads an education advocacy group called the Charleston Education Network, is not happy with the way the district has assessed the literacy program’s success. And indeed, parents might find the data daunting, particularly since progress in the reading programs is measured differently from progress in other academic areas.
District staff should be sure to present data in ways that can be understood by the general public as well as instructors. It is essential to ensure accountability — and public support for an essential program.
Meanwhile, we know that progress is being made. Simply put, more children are learning to read at grade level.
That should provide an incentive to raise expectations for the program to further raise literacy skills among more low-performing students.
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