Why Are Reading Scores Dropping? While 'Whole Language' Approach Has Been the Trend, Some Educators Are Giving 'Phonics' a Second Look

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Byline: Diana Wallace Daily Herald Staff Writer

Reading scores in the Northwest suburbs are on the decline, raising questions about whether educators, parents, society - or even the test itself - are to blame.

Statewide average scores on the Illinois Goals Assessment Program, known as the state "report cards," indicate reading proficiency dropped this year in three out of four grade levels.

Moreover, state averages have fallen at every grade level since 1993, in some cases as many as 27 points on a 500-point scale.

"Clearly, this is not acceptable," State Superintendent of Education Joseph Spagnolo said at an August summit he called to examine the problem.

And though test scores in virtually all Northwest suburban school districts hovered well above state averages, most saw some, if not drastic, slippage.

From the less-affluent Elgin Area Unit District 46 to the prestigious Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, many school systems sustained a significant hit in reading scores, including a 32-point drop at Stevenson, a 36-point decline in Maine Township High School District 207 and a 29-point dip in sixth-grade reading in River Trails Elementary District 26 in Mount Prospect.

"It's a complicated question as to why this is happening. It's an area where school districts are looking for answers," said Lee Milner, State Board of Education spokesman. "But, clearly, with the results we've seen over the last two years, we think there is a problem in students' reading levels."

Indeed, the reading scores have stymied suburban school officials, some of whom are now second-guessing their approaches to reading and trying to understand how scores in other areas have generally held up in the face of a decline in the most fundamental of academic skills.

"There's no question we're very disappointed," Walter Friker, assistant superintendent for instruction at Buffalo Grove-Long Grove Elementary District 96, said of the district's 33-point drop in eighth-grade reading from 1995 to 1996.

Though Friker said the district continues to fine-tune its approach to reading, he doubts that his district's curriculum - how it teaches reading - is the root of the problem.

"We don't believe that reading instruction is the issue," he said.

Instead, he said he suspects the difficulty lies in keeping students interested in reading.

Books vs. electronics

In an era where many children spend more time handling a computer mouse than a book, area educators worry about the literacy of children who are spending less and less time reading outside of school.

"Kids have an enormous amount of diversions that take them away from reading," said Ron Perlman, director of The Center, a teacher training cooperative in Des Plaines and one of the organizers of Spagnolo's recent summit. "How can you do something well if you don't do it at all?"

In response to this trend, schools such as Willow Grove Elementary in Buffalo Grove are trying to do what apparently isn't happening enough at home: set aside time for independent reading.

"We've created time within the school day to do reading," said Lyn Bortnick, Willow Grove's reading specialist, "and we're making it both fun and accountable,"

She adds that "study after study has indicated that the most important thing students can do is independent reading."

Other studies also have pointed out the strong correlation between academic success and children who are read to at home from an early age.

Cathy Hughes, a Clearmont School parent in Elk Grove Village, attributes her children's good school performance partly to the fact that she began reading aloud to them early - while they were in her womb.

Indian Grove School in Mount Prospect has recruited a group of volunteer mothers to read with children in the school library.

"There seems to be a direct result between children reading, even within the school day, and improved IGAP scores," said Karen Ratliff, resource center director at Indian Grove. …