What's Happening to Reading Scores? While 'Whole Language' Approach Has Been the Trend, Declining Test Scores Have Some Educators Giving 'Phonics' a Second Look

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Byline: Diana Wallace and Bill Cole Daily Herald Staff Writers

Reading scores in Lake County are on the decline, raising questions about whether educators, parents, society - or the authors of tests - are to blame.

As a debate rages in suburban Chicago and across the nation about how reading should be taught, Illinois' education agency has reported that statewide average scores on the Illinois Goals Assessment Program reading exams fell 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 "reading summit" he called to examine the problem.

Though test scores in virtually all Lake County school districts hovered well above state averages, most saw some, if not drastic, slippage.

And many school districts sustained a significant hit in scores, including a 32-point drop at prestigious Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, a 52-point decline in Rondout Elementary District 72's sixth-grade scores and a 46-point dip among eighth-graders in Fremont Elementary District 79 near Mundelein.

"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," said Walter Friker, assistant superintendent for instruction at Buffalo Grove-Long Grove Elementary District 96. His district saw a 33-point drop in eighth-grade reading from 1995 to 1996.

Though Friker said the district continues to fine-tune its approach, he denied that its curriculum was at the root of the problem.

"We don't believe that reading instruction, but keeping students interested in reading, is the issue," he said.

Books vs. electronics

In an era when many children spend more time with a Nintendo control in their hands than a book, area educators point out that they are fighting an uphill battle when trying to improve the literacy of children who spend 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 suburban teacher training cooperative and one of the organizers of the 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, and we're making it both fun and accountable," said Willow Grove Reading Specialist Lyn Bortnick, adding that "study after study has indicated that the most important thing students can do (to improve their overall academic performance) is independent reading."

In the Wauconda schools, Curriculum Director Janet Ring said the school system has responded to the reading score decline with a flurry of teacher meetings to discuss strategies for improvement.

The decision was made, Ring said, to emphasize the decoding and comprehension of reading text to "put pieces of information in text together to answer questions."

"That's basically what you do when you don't know exactly what's wrong," Ring said. "You zero in on those strategies that you know are critical. …