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Schools push reading, writing, reform

As U.S. schools try to meet the standards of the 'No Child Left Behind' law, sciences are being shelved in an effort to boost students' scores.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Here is 9-year-old Zulma Berrios's take on the school day: "In the morning we read. Then we go to Mrs. Witthaus and read. Then after lunch we read. Then we read some more."

Zulma has left out math, recess and the daily hour of such offerings as art and P.E. But otherwise, her summary is accurate.

In Katherine Segal's third-grade class at Highland Elementary School in Wheaton, much of the science and social studies curricula has been glossed over, or skipped entirely, because Zulma and other students must be taught -- soon -- to read better.

Those kinds of tradeoffs are being made across the nation, primarily at public schools such as Highland that have low test scores and large numbers of poor children. In recent years -- particularly since the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001 -- many schools have shifted to a fervent focus on reading, writing and math, bringing in program after program in search of what might help struggling students.

A look inside one school shows how life has changed in the new era of educational accountability. Highland students encounter a constant series of assessments. The school might lose a popular bilingual program because it does not meet the terms of a federal grant. And if test scores fail to rise, Highland faces strict sanctions, including the possibility of a state takeover in 2006.

The daily hour once devoted to science and social studies has been replaced by writing for second- and third-graders. Reading has been expanded to 90 minutes a day for all the school's 770 students. Students who began the year behind their grade level in reading might get three hours a day.

"Once they learn the fundamentals of reading, writing and math, they can pick up science and social studies on the double-quick," said Jerry D. Weast, superintendent of Montgomery County schools. "You're not going to be a scientist if you can't read."

Yet teachers worry that two strata of schools are being created, one in which students gain broad knowledge and the groundwork for becoming scientists, and another in which children will, in some ways, be left behind. Scott Steffan, the Highland staff member in charge of teachers' professional growth, has young children who will soon be educated seven miles away, in a less impoverished part of the county. "When my kids go to school," he said, "they're going to get a totally different education."

President Bush has pressed hard for education reform because, he has said, far too many children leave school unequipped to succeed and "there must be consequences for schools that won't teach and won't change."

Highland teaches, and Highland changes. And regardless of what turns up on a new batch of state exam results this summer, the school is awash in consequences.

The mandate for reading
Class with Ms. Segal, a fifth-year teacher, begins each morning with a county-mandated 90 minutes of reading.

For 50 minutes, Tracey Witthaus pulls out a small group of third-graders -- including Zulma -- for Soar to Success, an intensive reading-comprehension program used at many county schools. Instead of studying school desegregation and the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Zulma's group finishes a book about a grasshopper storm and practices reading strategies: Predict, summarize, question, clarify.

"Clarify," said Zulma, who began the year reading at the late first-grade level. "When I come to a word I don't know, I look for chunks I do. Reminded. Re-mine-ded."

"Clarify," said Zulma's classmate Erick Diaz, 9, who began the year reading at a second-grade level. "When I come to a word I don't know, I look for chunks I do. Hailstones. Hail-stone-s."

Erick's mother, Ana, is pleased with his progress. But she said she had no idea the class did so little science, which she thinks Erick would excel in. And she had no idea that the reading interventions would take him out of class so much.

The Prince George's County elementary school that Zulma left two years ago gave no indication that her reading was subpar, her mother said. To Zinia Berrios, it's more important that Zulma is reading well than learning science or social studies -- there's time for that later.

The school year is nearly over, and none of Segal's third-graders has compared the climates of Mexico and Washington. They've picked up facts on countries' geographic characteristics and natural resources through books they read, but they studied neither concept in depth. They haven't studied sound dynamics, nor Asia's past, nor many other elements of the county's third-grade curricula for science and social studies.

Segal did lead her 27 students on a cursory swing through plant development; they grew plants. They spent one day taking fingerprints -- their only other science experiment -- but never explored the rest of the crime lab unit, which is designed to teach over several weeks the concepts of patterns, evidence and inference.

In 2008, the No Child Left Behind Act adds science to the reading and math tests that states must give. School system administrators have said science can be woven into reading lessons or taught to groups of students who already read well.

Highland teachers have said that it's unfeasible given the pressures the staff faces and that it's not the message they're hearing. "The word is out that they have to focus on reading only. And math," said Leslie Zimmerman, Highland's coordinator of the gifted and talented program.

Segal weaves in what she can; her students, the ones not out of the room in reading intervention, spent a good deal of May researching Asia. It's not that the climate at Highland is entirely rigid. Students perform, color, collaborate.

Zulma clearly enjoys the small reading groups, and she enjoys improving. When she isn't chosen to read, she loses her usually imperial air and sinks her head into her arms. Zinia Barrios said she now sees her daughter pick up a book to read, just for fun.

After lunch, recess and math, most of Segal's students work on writing while others, including Erick and Zulma, read lists of words in unison with Mrs. Witthaus in a program called Horizons. Rosie Ramirez, Highland's longtime principal, said she hates seeing teachers pulled from other duties and using a Horizons script that tells them even when to say, "Good job."

But for students behind in reading, Ramirez said, "what's happening at that time will probably be more effective than what's happening in the classroom."

For all the interventions and extra resources that Highland receives -- from the federal government and the county -- because of its poverty rate, the school's scores on standardized reading tests have been consistently below average. Students have scored between the 40th and 50th national percentile in reading, below many county schools with similar demographics that have improved their scores in recent years.

Most Highland students are poor and Hispanic; about 30 percent of them scored proficient last year on Maryland's reading test. Three in 10 have limited English skills; of those students, 9 percent scored proficient.

Bush has said every student should read at grade level by the end of third grade.

"Anyone who came to this school and sat down for a while would say that's a very high expectation," said Segal.

Testing for skills
"This afternoon," Segal tells her fidgety students, "we're going to be reading a story from the Images magazine and doing some multiple-choice questions and short answers."

The new wave of intensive reading instruction relies on keeping tabs on students' skills. Three times a year, Highland's third-graders take the Images reading test, one of the many measures of their abilities. Erick and Zulma's reading also is assessed three times in Horizons. About 14 times, it's assessed in Soar for Success. Three times, the whole class gets another, thorough in-house reading evaluation.

And over two days in the spring, every third-grader takes the annual Maryland School Assessment in reading -- the exam by which the school's progress is judged under No Child Left Behind.

When the Images test starts, Erick is preoccupied with having just been called "bighead" by a classmate. He turns around and reads the bulletin board. He yawns.

Nearby, Zulma is stumped. The story packs a lot of information into 12 paragraphs: the origins of baseball, the evolution of the mitt, the coeducation of Little League. Zulma knows soccer and basketball, but not baseball.

Most towns have some kind of organized leagues like Little League. In which sentence does the word organized mean the same thing as in the sentence above?

A. The desks were organized in rows.

B. The teacher has her files organized in her desk drawer.

C. The musicians played in organized bands for the concert.

D. He organized his collection of baseball cards.

This doesn't make sense to Zulma. She knows "organized," but can't distinguish any difference in its meaning among the sentences.

Segal has tried to prepare her students for those types of questions and uses the testing language throughout the year. She has taught them multiple-choice skills and how to write inside tiny answer boxes. But she wonders why a test question can't just say, "What did you learn?" instead of, "Explain how your knowledge of baseball has remained the same or changed."

When she grades her students' answers, Segal is not surprised that they range from incomprehensible to irrelevant to, rarely, acceptable. "If it was one question, it would be okay," Segal said. "But they're overwhelmed with what they have to do at one time."

County teachers frequently receive printouts showing in what areas the class is lacking. For some assessments, teachers listen to each student read for 30 minutes, creating hours that the class gets no instruction.

The scrutiny is designed to make sure nobody's deficiencies go unnoticed. One of the most revolutionary aspects of No Child Left Behind is the requirement that states not only give students yearly exams, but also that they break down results by student population, such as Hispanic, or special education. If any group misses the target, the whole school does.

Each year that a school falls short, it experiences a new set of services and sanctions. Already, Highland and 44 other schools in the Washington area must pay for any child whose family requests a transfer to a better-scoring school and for any low-income student to be tutored.

If Highland finds out next month that its scores on the Maryland School Assessments have fallen short again -- short of a target that gets higher every year, as the federal law demands -- the school could be subject to a new curriculum, an extended school year or less autonomy. And in 2006, Highland could be taken over by the state, and the staff could be replaced.

Meanwhile, staff members said they aren't sure what they might be doing wrong.

The U.S. Department of Education Web site states, "Annual testing provides teachers with a great deal of information." But when the 2003 Maryland scores arrived at Highland in August, the only information was the percentage, in each group, of students who were proficient. Not enough poor, Hispanic and limited-English students made it. The data weren't broken down into "vocabulary" or "comprehension" -- just "reading."

"What does this tell me about what we could do better?" Highland reading specialist Gloria Gonzalez asked. "You're shooting in the dark."

A few weeks ago, Highland received a letter from Weast saying that the same set of test results merited the school a $4,000 reward for progress.

A community mobilized
On May 12, President Bush appeared in Bethesda to promote the $5 billion Reading First federal grant program as a way to provide curricula that the administration has deemed scientifically proven to work. Five miles away, the Highland school community scrambled to deflect Reading First.

After receiving a Reading First grant, Maryland chose nine counties for the program, and Montgomery County chose four of its poorest, lowest-scoring schools. Next year, each must devote its 90-minute reading block and hour of intervention solely to a curriculum called Nation's Choice.

Every school must deliver the instruction the same way, in English only. So Highland has been told that it can't use, among other initiatives, the dual-language program that many parents and staff consider the school's jewel. Highland's dual-language teachers feel so strongly they have said they'll leave if it is cut. They said the dual-language kids score better in math than the rest of the school and finish second grade at a higher reading level.

"If that's true," said county Deputy Superintendent Gregory Thornton, "it certainly hasn't helped the aggregate [test scores] of the school."

Teachers try to discern where the decision is originating so they can press their case. Parents begin meeting, too. Principal Ramirez has never seen anything mobilize the community like this.

In the school library one evening, 40 parents, most of them Spanish-speaking, devise a plan. They'll circulate petitions. They'll talk with TeleFutura, a Spanish-language cable network. They'll show up at the Board of Education. They'll fill out transfer forms as a statement -- not that they want to move their children out of Highland -- and they'll write a letter.

One mother raises her hand. "Who should the letter be addressed to?"

There is silence.