Byline: Laura Diamond, Times-Union staff writer
As Duval County administrators try to figure out why their high schools received some of the lowest grades in the state, they will look at reading.
Too many high school students struggle with reading. The students can read a book, but many are unable to comprehend the text.
Only three in 10 Duval County high school students passed the reading section of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). At Raines and Ribault, two high schools that received an F from the state, only one in 10 passed.
The state uses student scores from the exam to grade all public schools. For the first time this year, reading accounted for half of each school's grade. In high schools, only students in ninth and 10th grades take the exam.
Of Duval's 18 high schools, three earned an A, while 10 received a D or F.
Superintendent John Fryer said steps are being taken to strengthen the reading programs at elementary and middle schools to improve the odds for better performance in high school.
But helping high school students is a tougher challenge, he said.
"Teaching reading to high school students is like teaching an adult a foreign language," Fryer said. "Students need motivation and dedication. And I don't know how many of our students have that."
This reading problem isn't unique to Duval County. More than half of all students entering high school in the nation's 35 largest cities read at a sixth-grade level or lower, according to a new study from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Students with reading problems struggle in other subjects. They are often unable to understand their math, science and social studies textbooks or even test questions.
Fryer has emphasized reading since becoming superintendent four years ago. In 1998, he implemented a 25-book goal, challenging all students to read that many books a year.
The book goal has been least effective at the high school level, mainly because of students' poor reading skills.
"What these students really need is one-on-one tutoring," said Jeanne Ballentine, the school system's supervisor for language arts. "It took these kids a long time to develop the habits that are keeping them from moving forward in school. It will take a long time to help them."
Money is needed to fund intensive reading tutorials. And teachers and volunteers must be trained on how to help these students.
Fryer doesn't know where all these resources will come from. He said one-on-one tutoring may not be needed; instead, lessons can be provided in smaller classes. But he was unsure how those classes would be structured or who would lead them.
"We have a lot to look at and consider," Fryer said. "I don't yet have all the answers."
All Duval County high schools offer incoming ninth-graders a yearlong intensive reading class. Students are assigned to the class automatically based on their FCAT scores. …