Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Schools Study Mystery of Reading Score Drop Tougher FCAT Cited; Mini-Libraries Planned

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Schools Study Mystery of Reading Score Drop Tougher FCAT Cited; Mini-Libraries Planned

Article excerpt

Brightly colored signs adorn the hallways of the Duval County School Board administration building, congratulating the school system for improved student performance in statewide reading, writing and math tests.

And while most in the building smile over the gains made on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, administrators wrinkle their brows trying to find out why reading scores dropped at more than half of the system's 162 schools.

When FCAT reading results were released last month, there were declines at 11 of Duval County's 17 high schools; 19 of the 23 middle schools; and 52 of the 103 elementary schools.

The declines mirror a statewide trend. Some educators blame a harder exam for the drop, but others fault the way Duval County teaches reading.

The lower scores puzzle many administrators, since Superintendent John Fryer has made reading a priority.

"It is obvious we still need to look at reading," said Fryer, who was on vacation when scores first came out and met with staff last week to analyze the results. "We have lots of programs in place in the lower levels, but not so much elsewhere."

Jacksonville elementary schools have a multitude of programs that stress reading skills -- America's Choice and Direct Instruction are among the most popular.

Students in all grades are also tested at the beginning and at the end of the year to determine their reading abilities. Students are provided with a suggested reading list designed to improve their own skills.

And, as part of one of Fryer's pet projects, students are encouraged to read 25 books a year.

Fryer, who completes his second term in office on Aug. 1, said those programs are helping, but stressed they are still new. He said more students are reading 25 books a year and even those not making the goal are at least reading more than before.

For example, this school year more than 21,000 students met the challenge, according to school system estimates. In the previous year, a little more than 10,000 read at least 25 books.

With all these improvements going on, some school officials blame Duval's decreases on a harder FCAT.

"My suspicion is the level of difficulty was greater this year," said Tim Ballentine, general director of research, assessment and evaluation. "I can't help but believe that if reading went down statewide that a more difficult test played a role."

Even if the tests were harder, some principals said that alone doesn't explain the drop.

Last year, Mandarin High School had some of the highest scores in the state in reading and received a congratulatory letter from Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher. This year, the school's scores slipped by 10 percentage points.

Principal Milton Threadcraft said he is surprised but not troubled by the drop. Next year, the school will provide yearlong programs to assist students in reading.

Longer class time and additional work are not an answer, said Margaret Janz, an education professor at Jacksonville University specializing in reading.

Reading skills must be taught across all grade levels and those skills must be applied to different subjects areas -- not just English, said Janz, who attended Jacksonville schools as a child and used to teach in the system.

"In this county we teach reading in elementary school and then all of a sudden we don't do anything after fifth grade," Janz said. …

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