State aims to turn around decline in reading skills | SierraSun.com
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State aims to turn around decline in reading skills

Christine Stanley
Sierra Sun

The ability to handle reading complex subjects is the major factor separating high school students who are ready for college reading from those who are not, according to a new report.

To help close that gap the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District is considering offering students new options.

The study by ACT, a nonprofit company that tests college-bound students, found most states contribute to the lack of college preparedness by not requiring complex reading comprehension in high school.

In fact, ACT found that most states don’t have any standards at all for high school reading achievement.

California does, but the standards are relatively new, having only been introduced to school districts in the late 1990s, according to Robby Ching, chair of the Learning Skills Department at Sacramento State University. It is taking time for teachers and administrators to revamp their curriculums and text books in order to fulfill the requirements.

But Ching and a group of California State University and kindergarten through 12th-

grade English faculty have developed a new 12th-grade expository reading and writing course designed to teach students the critical reading skills needed to succeed at the college level.

So far, five English teachers from Tahoe Truckee High School have participated in the four-day training program to learn the new curriculum, according to Nancy Brynelson, co-director of the CSU center for the advancement of reading, and can now implement elements of the course into their own classrooms.

“Complex reading is complex thinking ” being able to see what is being written from the point of view of logic and emotion,” said Tom Meschery, an English teacher at Sierra College in Truckee.

In complex reading passages, organization might be elaborate, messages might be implicit, interactions among ideas or characters might be subtle and the vocabulary is demanding and intricate.

The ACT isolated reading complexity as a critical factor by analyzing the results of the 1.2 million high school seniors in 2005 who took the ACT college entrance test. Based on that test, only 51 percent of students showed they were ready to handle the reading requirements of a typical first-year college course.

“The [California State University] board of trustees realized that over 50 percent of our students place below college level in English, and they were horrified. With 75 percent of (students), reading is the issue,” Ching said. “But it’s only been in the past few years that we have communicated with (high schools) that we need to be on the same page.”

So far, the new expository reading curriculum, which became available in 2004-05, has been adopted by 1,300 California teachers in more than 55 school districts, Ching said.

California is also pushing ahead of the curve with an early assessment program (EAP) exclusive to the state. The EAP is a joint effort between the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education and the California State University system to measure students’ readiness for college-level English and mathematics in their junior year of high school.

Students can voluntarily take the exam, which includes combinations of questions from the CSU placement test and standardized state tests, to learn how well prepared they are for college.

Of the 300,000 11th graders who took test last year, only 22 percent were told they were ready, Ching said.

In the United States, reading is largely treated as an elementary school subject, with diminishing focus in later grades. But with each alarming report on college readiness, adolescent literacy is gaining attention.

“We are in the forefront as states go in trying to bridge the gap between high school preparation and what colleges expect,” Ching said.

At present, high school instructors are used to teaching subjects, not deeper reading skills, said Patricia Sullivan, director of state programs at the independent Center on Education Policy.

Requiring rigorous reading will also take patience because unless extra help gets to students before and during high school, more complexity can only mean lower test scores.

“With all the focus on reading, I think states are going to move in this direction,” Sullivan added. “The question is when, and where the leadership will come from.”


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