High schools get incoming readers up to standards
The Arizona Republic
Jul. 2, 2006

Karina Bland

Fourteen-year-old Charlene Carey used to rush through whatever she was reading so she wouldn't seem slow compared with her classmates.

This summer at Carl Hayden High in Phoenix, she's learning to take her time so she understands what she's reading.

When kids like Charlene start high school, the expectation is that they already know how to read proficiently. But 58 percent of incoming freshmen in the Phoenix Union High School District read at least two years below grade level, some as low as fourth grade. In the Dysart Unified School District, about 25 percent of new freshman can't read as well as they should by now.

Across the state, high school educators are buying expensive reading intervention programs and hiring reading specialists, taking on a task they had until now mostly left to elementary school teachers.

It used to be that teenagers who struggled with reading were tracked into courses of study that were less taxing and required less reading, says Karen Tankersley, a Glendale reading consultant and former school superintendent.

But these days, students must meet new academic standards and pass state exams to graduate. Schools' rankings depend on their performance. They have to know how to read.

And there's no point in whining that these kids should have learned to read proficiently in elementary school, says Jean Anderson, curriculum director in Phoenix Union.

"The final accountability is on us to get these kids to graduate," she said.
"We have no choice."

State lags nation
In 2005, 65 percent of the state's eighth-graders tested as proficient in reading, compared with 73 percent nationally, according to the 2005 Nation's Report Card put out by the U.S. Department of Education.

Arizona's children are so far behind in reading because many are learning English. Arizona kids also are transitory, moving from place to place, and losing ground academically with every move. Children can't learn to read well if they often are absent.

Kids who can't read are often good listeners, learning enough from the teacher's lessons instead of the assigned reading to squeak by in elementary school, says Denise Birdwell, assistant superintendent for secondary programs in Dysart.

But in high school, the amount of reading students are expected to do increases substantially, as does the difficulty level.

The struggling readers coming into high school now were already out of the primary grades when the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 was approved and missed out on the intervention programs and tutoring that came with it.

"The only way to fix them is very intense and very specific intervention. It has to be given by professionals who know what they are doing," Tankersley said. "The problem is, they are coming at us faster than we can deal with it."

Experts say that children who don't learn to read by the fourth grade will never catch up. But Rita Furqaan, a reading teacher at Carl Hayden High, believes they can, with a lot of hard work. The students seem willing to do it.

Computer testing
With headphones on, Kristie Pinnegar, 14, takes a spelling test at the computer, which instantly grades her work.

She watches video clips, picking up vocabulary and context by listening, or reads passages on the screen. Then she answers questions about what she has read.

Kristie likes working on the computer because she can work at her own pace and make mistakes, and correct them, in private. The computer tracks the students' progress, and the teacher can see which concepts are stumping students.

In the middle of the classroom, some of her classmates have their noses buried in paperback books. Some are adapted for lower reading levels.
Teenagers won't read books meant for little kids even if those books reflect their ability level.

The rest of the students are crowded around Furqaan, picking unfamiliar words out of a story they're reading.

"Insulation. It traps heat," Raul Gallardo, 14, writes. Then each student writes a sentence of their own, using the word. Raul writes, "My house has insulation in the roof."

That will seal it in their memory, Furqaan says. She tells the students, "You can have ownership of that word. In August, when you see that word again, you can tell your teacher, 'I know it. I've used it.' "

Furqaan looks over Raul's shoulder and marks a star on his paper with her red pen.

Programs show progress
Two years ago, Phoenix Union adopted Scholastic's Read 180 program at a cost of $3 million and hired 23 reading specialists. Students with low reading scores spend a double period, or 110 minutes a day, in one class, rotating through activities to improve fluency and comprehension.

It may be a big reason why students made such large gains last spring on Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards test.

Sophomores passing the reading portion of the test jumped to 71 percent, up from 38 percent the previous spring.

Other districts, including Glendale Union and Dysart, also use Read 180, one of a dozen reading programs now geared specifically to older students. Read 180 guarantees two years' growth in reading in one year, and some students are jumping three, four and even five grade levels.

"The results are just tremendous," Birdwell said.

Latia Mitchell, 13, closes a paperback book and says she's a better reader after just six weeks in the Read 180 program offered as part of the district's free Ninth Grade Academy.

Latia used to dread reading. Now she says she enjoys it, particularly