It took third grade teacher Marcy Deschaine three minutes to determine that one of her students was struggling to read.
And it took her another three minutes of hearing Corey Lipscomb read from a book about making pizza to determine that this student’s reading was where it should be.
“You’re in the green,” Deschaine, who teaches at Hubbell Elementary School in Bristol, told Corey, showing him his results from the quick assessment on her hand-held iPod touch.
Hubbell is one of 15 schools in the state where a pilot program was launched to help poor readers. The program focuses on identifying reading problems early and then providing those students with additional small-group reading instruction.
The need is acute.
At the state’s lowest-performing school districts, one in four students in kindergarten through Grade 3 was identified as “substantially deficient” in reading last year. Only half of the 47,440 elementary school students were rated as proficient in reading.
Despite these significant deficiencies — and research shows that students who can’t read by Grade 3 are far more likely to drop out of high school — the State Department of Education reports that few students are held back.
“We haven’t retained anybody,” Edward Orzulak, principal of Anna Norris Elementary School in East Hartford, said in a recent interview.
While more than a dozen states nationwide have placed restrictions on the social promotion of struggling students past Grade 3, educators in Connecticut are trying this different approach to more aggressively confront the problem.
“Teaching reading in many ways really is rocket science,” said Dianna Roberge-Wentzell, the State Department of Education’s chief academic officer. “Research says retention does more harm then good. It’s what we do when we don’t know what else to do.”
Finding out what works
Ellen Delgado spends part of her day at Norris Elementary helping small groups of students improve their reading.
“It’s not OK to just do the same program with the same lesson and hope for different results. You need a plan,” the literacy coach said during a recent interview.
These small-group interventions are taking place at all 15 of the pilot schools.
The Neag School of Education is leading reform efforts at five of the schools where, every day, 40 percent to 60 percent of students gather in small groups and receive 30 to 45 minutes of additional reading instruction.
Michael Coyne, associate professor and a researcher at the Neag Center for Behavioral Education and Research, says the results of a nearly identical approach are promising elsemwhere.
“Intervention generally accelerated achievement,” Coyne told educators and state lawmakers during a reading forum at the state Capitol complex last month. A chart that showed the increase in reading proficiency of a similiar initiative in Florida was displayed. “This provides evidence we could replicate in other Connecticut schools and high priority districts,” he said.
While there seems to be agreement among state educators that these interventions are beneficial, the pilot schools are also working to help teachers better identify which students are struggling and in what areas — vocabulary, fluency, phonics, etc. — they’re having trouble with.
In numerous pilot schools, every kindergarten through Grade 3 teacher has been provided with an iPod touch –- a “mini computer,” as some Bristol teachers call it -– to track their students.
Each teacher sits down with every student toward the beginning of the school year and asks him to read out loud for two minutes. As teachers follow word-for-word on their iPods, they note words the student mispronounces, how far in the text the student gets to in the allotted time and whether the student can tell them key points from the book.
Through the three-minute assessment, teachers can see immediately if the student is struggling in phonics, fluency, comprehension and the other necessary elements needed to read effectively.
“Before we knew what we had to teach based on what the whole group needed. Now they will get extra instruction in small groups to support where they may be behind,” said Barbara Tedesco, a first grade teacher in Bristol.
Teachers like Tedesco do follow-up assessments once that initial intervention has taken place to make sure the student is improving and catching up with his peers.
Tracie Sinkwich, the literacy teacher at the Bristol school, says the two-pronged approach is helping.
In one Grade 1 classroom at Hubbell, 32 percent of the students at the start of the school year were far below where they should have been in reading comprehension. By year’s end, that number had dipped to 21 percent, and the drop had occurred in classroom after classroom.
“We are in a better place now to get a head start with these students,” Sinkwich said.
Statewide rollout for reading reforms for next year?
Members of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus sought to have these reforms implemented statewide in the spring of 2012.
“I will be pushing strongly for it” in the coming legislative session, Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, former chairman of the caucus, said during a recent interview.
“It’s difficult for anyone to offer up an argument of why we don’t move forward,” he said, noting that the price tag for a statewide rollout topping “tens of millions” of dollars is no excuse. “We owe these people an education,” he said.
Cost projections curtailed the delegation’s efforts last year, the General Assembly opting instead to start by funding the early identification and interventions technique at the pilot programs.
Reading reforms implemented in previous years have produced disappointing results, in both Connecticut and nationwide.
Since 2003, the percentage of Connecticut fourth graders identified as “below basic” in reading on the U.S. Department of Education’s test has hovered around 27 percent. The percentage of students deemed proficient has remained around 42 percent.
“Years of well-meaning reading initiatives have not produced higher student mastery… Obviously we haven’t made any progress,” said Kathy Christie, the author of a report titled “A Problem Still in Search of a Solution,” released by the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit education-policy think tank.
“Nothing is a silver bullet,” she said.
But Coyne, with UConn’s education college, is encouraged by the success of the mix of initiatives used in the pilot programs.
“We know these features are the best chance to closing the achievement gap” between minority and low-income students and their peers, Coyne said. “We can replicate these results in other Connecticut schools, but it will take a significant investment over time.”
State law requires the State Department of Education to develop a reading assessment for schools to use in the next school year to help districts better identify struggling readers early. However, it’s unclear if schools will be required to use a new assessment. The department must also create, by January, a statewide reading plan for these struggling students.