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READING: THE FIRST SKILL | SUNDAY REPORT

A Long Road Back From Reading Crisis

In 1995, fourth-grade scores hit bottom, and officials vowed to get California students back on track. A shift back to phonics launched reforms, but obstacles remain.

September 13, 1998|NICK ANDERSON and DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Despite strong evidence that students who cannot read by the end of the third grade are headed for academic failure, more than 100,000 third-graders in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties failed to achieve grade-level reading last spring.

They represent roughly two-thirds of the third-graders in those counties who took the Stanford 9 examinations.

Even worse, some 67,000 of those third-graders could hardly read at all--failing to meet the standard for basic literacy.

The problem is worst in low-income urban regions, where large numbers of children with limited English skills pulled down test scores. But trouble exists in more affluent suburbs as well. In Los Angeles County, nearly half of third-graders have not acquired minimal reading skills, the test data show. In Orange and Ventura counties, about three in 10 could hardly read.

Across the region, some districts, and some individual schools, are proving that those numbers can be reversed--even with hard-to-teach, low-income children.

Seeking to replicate those success stories, state officials, burned by several years of abysmal test scores, have embarked on major efforts at reform--mirroring an effort nationwide to make improved reading scores the centerpiece of educational reform. Indeed, many officials believe this school year is shaping up to be a turning point for reading in California.

But interviews with teachers, school officials and experts, as well as classroom visits in several Southern California schools, show that, while the reforms are well underway, many obstacles remain.

Among the problems: high teacher turnover, inconsistent training, uneven quality of new textbooks and California's well-known susceptibility to the swings of education fashion.

Officials and parents have ample reason for concern.

Many nonreaders eventually drop out of school or get referred to costly special education programs. So many wind up in jail that Arizona officials have found they can use the rate of illiteracy to help calculate future prison needs. All lose out on the best jobs and best colleges.

"It's vital to teach them to read early," said Cathy Mittan, a curriculum resource teacher at San Cayetano school in Fillmore, who left the classroom five years ago to resurrect the school's reading lab.

"What we know from brain research is that there's a window that's open up until about the fourth grade where we can learn to read. . . . That window closes for most children at the end of third grade. After that, it's hard to pry it open."

Students Hampered by Poverty, Language

You can spot the children in jeopardy in places like Kennedy Elementary, one of Santa Ana's most poverty-stricken schools, which scored the lowest reading marks in Orange County on last spring's Stanford 9 exam.

There, some first-graders must learn their ABCs at a rate of one letter a week. In another class, common words such as "you" and "can" stump some third-graders as they read aloud. And in one fifth-grade classroom, only a third of the 33 students read at grade level.

Most students fall behind because English is not their native language, teachers said. About 98% of Kennedy's students--mostly Latino and Cambodian--are not fluent in English. And most students come from low-income homes where books are scarce and English is not spoken.

But educators conceded this is the last stop before the challenging course work of middle school will come crashing down on these children.

"I don't want my kids to be relegated to working in the strawberry fields," Kennedy Principal Sally Melton said. "I want them to be college-bound. But they aren't going to succeed if they aren't reading."

California policymakers have heeded the warnings from educators such as Melton and from a humiliating 1995 report card that ranked the state's fourth-graders dead last in reading on a nationwide assessment.

Their goal is for all children to read by third grade because researchers have found that, once students begin to encounter more complicated subjects in higher grades, those who have not already learned to read have little chance to catch up.

In the last two years, billions of dollars have been spent to cut class size in elementary schools, train teachers, replace textbooks, set standards, test students. Voters, too, have gotten into the act. The passage of Proposition 227 last June curtailed bilingual education in the name of teaching children English at an early age.

This year, school administrators expect improvements. The emphasis everywhere is supposed to be on reading. Phonics, the teaching method that links letters to sounds, forms the backbone of the state's new crusade.

But while the state's policy may be clear, the reality in the classroom remains far more muddled.

In Norwalk, one roomful of teachers at a summer literacy seminar confessed that they had never learned how to teach reading skills--such as sounding out words, scanning pictures and context for clues and keying on the first letter--to groups of four or five students.

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