TAKE 5: Common Core, Lee Schools put focus on literacy

Dec. 07, 2013 @ 05:01 AM

This week, we Take 5 with Carol Chappell, the K-5/Title I/II Director for Lee County Schools, about Common Core reading standards and efforts to help students increase their ability to read. Chappell,  a Lee County native, has worked in Lee County schools since 1977.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from UNC-Chapel Hill before receiving a master’s degree from Campbell  and a doctorate from UNC. She’s received numerous professional and civic awards, including being named as one of three Citizens of the Year by The Herald earlier this year for her part in developing the formula for the Lee County Education Foundation’s “The Head of Class” project.

What are the Common Core reading standards, and why were they developed?

The Common Core reading standards are part of the Common Core English Language Arts (ELA) standards that have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. They were adopted primarily to increase reading rigor and bring consistency in expectations throughout our nation.

An analysis of reading rigor across the decades shows that reading rigor was higher during the 1940s, 50s and 60s than it is today. The reading level of a high school senior in 1960 was a close match to the reading level required to be successful as a freshman in college. Over the next few decades, the reading level of high school seniors gradually decreased while the reading level required for a college freshman remained virtually the same.

Today, a two-year gap exists between the reading level of a high school senior and a college freshman. To address this discrepancy, the Common Core reading standards have increased the reading rigor at every grade level. For example, a particular book might have been considered grade-level reading under the previous standards for a student who was beginning the fourth grade. Under the Common Core standards, the same book would be considered grade-level reading for a student about halfway through the third grade.

Beginning with the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, all states have developed their own proficiency standards to measure student achievement, resulting in a wide variation among the states. Since 1969, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has provided a common measure of student achievement across the country by testing randomly selected students from all areas. NAEP has two major goals: to compare student achievement across the states and to track changes in the achievement of fourth-, eighth-, and 12th-graders over time in reading, math, writing and science. The NAEP results show a wide span between the states in the percentage of students who perform at or above the NAEP proficient level in reading and math. The Common Core standards bring greater consistency in standards across the country.

What concerns have been expressed about Common Core?

Some people believe adoption of the standards could result in a “national curriculum,” over which the federal government would have too much influence. Other people have criticized the implementation of the Common Core standards and the types of assessments being developed. North Carolina is one of the first states to have fully implemented all of the Common Core standards and administered new state assessments based on the standards.

So many changes so quickly have been difficult for teachers and administrators, as well as students and parents. The Lee County Schools are committed to assisting the teachers and school administrators in every way possible to meet the new requirements. This includes the provision of time for teachers to meet and plan together; the purchase of new books, software programs, and other materials needed to implement the new standards; the provision of quality professional development based on the standards; and new ways to involve parents and the community in our students’ education.

How are the Common Core reading standards different from the reading standards used in previous years?

There are many differences between the Common Core reading standards and the previous reading standards used in North Carolina. Previous reading standards included long lists of objectives and specific skills for students to master. Some lists were so lengthy that they looked more like curriculum guides than standards. The Common Core reading standards consist of 10 anchor standards that are broad reading goals that describe student outcomes. These 10 anchor standards were used by North Carolina to develop 10 Common Core state standards for reading literature and 10 for reading informational text at each grade level.

The literature standards include the following: reading closely to determine what the text explicitly says; determining themes and summarizing; comparing two or more characters or events; determining the meaning of words and phrases; analyzing text structure, describing the author’s point of view; comparing two or more stories or books; and comprehending complex grade level literature.

The informational text standards include: explaining what a text explicitly says using accurate quotes; identifying the main idea(s) and supporting details of a text; explaining the relationships between individuals, events or concepts in a text; determining the meaning of domain-specific words; comparing the overall structure of two or more texts; analyzing multiple accounts of the same topic, noting different points of view; integrating information from several texts on the same topic; and comprehending complex grade-level informational texts.

When comparing the Common Core reading standards to reading standards used in previous years, I have observed three key differences. The first key difference is the much greater emphasis given in the Common Core standards to reading informational text. At least 50 percent of student reading in elementary school is required to be informational reading (nonfiction). This percentage increases to 70 percent by the high school level.

As part of reading informational text, there is a stronger focus on students learning how to interpret text features such as maps, charts, timelines, sidebars, tables, pictures, graphs, diagrams, captions, glossaries and various appendices. The greater focus on reading informational text is in response to extensive research that demonstrates the need for college and career-ready students to be proficient in reading complex informational text independently.

A second key difference in the Common Core reading standards is the focus on text complexity. Students are expected to read and comprehend increasingly more difficult texts as they progress through each year of school. A landmark study published by the American College Testing Service in 2006 revealed that the most important skill for reaching the reading benchmark score on the ACT reading test was facility with reading complex text. The students who met or exceeded the benchmark score were more likely to enroll in college, earn a GPA of 3.0 or higher and return for a second year at the same college. Facility with reading complex text distinguished the students who were college and career ready from those who were not. These findings held true regardless of student ethnicity, gender or income level.

In order to fully comprehend a complex text, the Common Core standards strongly recommend the use of a reading strategy called close reading. This reading strategy is a central focus of the Common Core standards and is the third key difference between the new and the old standards. During a close reading, students read a short, complex text multiple times focusing on a deeper understanding of what the author is saying, the author’s purpose and the meaning of the words. Teachers guide the students to deeper levels of meaning through text-based questions and discussion. Text-based questions can only be answered by using evidence from the text. The Common Core standards require students to cite specific textual evidence to support answers to questions or conclusions drawn from the text. All students are to be given the opportunity to productively struggle with complex text. The close reading strategy helps students accelerate and deepen their reading comprehension skills.

Why are so many students in North Carolina and Lee County not reading on grade level, according to the newly released 2012-13 End-of-Grade (EOG) Reading test results?

The 2012-13 NC EOG Reading test results revealed far fewer students meeting reading proficiency standards than in previous years. The EOG Reading tests were new assessments based on Common Core reading standards. The primary reason for the dramatic decrease in the percentage of students who scored a Level III or IV on the EOG Reading tests was that the proficiency cut score was raised. In other words, the percentage of questions the student had to answer correctly in order to pass the test (score a Level III or IV) was raised substantially. The bar was also raised in other states that have administered new assessments based on the Common Core standards, including Kentucky and New York, which have seen similar decreases in scores.

One of the main reasons that the bar was raised is because of the very large discrepancy between the percentage of students who score at or above the NAEP proficient level in reading and the percentage of students who meet state reading proficiency standards. This discrepancy exists for all of the states at both the fouth and eighth grades. For example, the 2009 NAEP results show that 88 percent of the fourth-grade students in Kansas met the Kansas reading proficiency standard, yet only 35 percent of the Kansas 4th graders met the NAEP proficient level in reading. Seventy-one percent of the Louisiana 4th graders met the state reading proficiency standards as compared to just 18 percent who met the NAEP proficient level in reading. The North Carolina 2012-13 reading proficiency results are much more closely aligned to the North Carolina 2013 NAEP proficiency results, which were 35 percent for fourth-grade students and 35 percent for eighth graders.

A number of states have delayed the administration of new assessments based on the Common Core standards including Florida, Louisiana, and Massachusetts in an attempt to slow down implementation of the Common Core standards. Massachusetts is even considering keeping their previous assessments in place indefinitely. The raising of the bar is part of the growing controversy surrounding the Common Core standards.

What can parents do to help their children become better readers?

Listening to your child read aloud for at least 20 minutes a day is by far the most effective way to increase your child’s reading skills for children in grades K-3. As your child reads aloud, you can help him/her figure out unknown words, have him/her reread sections when needed and monitor his/her reading fluency. You should ask your child a few general comprehension questions as he/she reads to make sure he/she understands the text.

For students in grades four and higher, parents should monitor their child’s independent reading practice for at least 20-30 minutes a day. The same types of comprehension questions should be asked to make sure the child is actually reading and understanding the text.

Research overwhelmingly shows that the time spent reading is the most important variable related to reading skills. Even an additional 10 minutes a day spent reading can dramatically increase reading levels. The more time your child spends reading, the better reader he/she will become.

The type and level of text are important factors in maximizing your child’s progress. The text should be on a topic your child is interested in. Take the time to find out what types of stories and books your child likes. When your child shows enjoyment for a particular book, look for other books by the same author. Find out what types of informational text your child likes. Is he/she interested in animals, historical events, dinosaurs, space travel, people’s lives, tornadoes, airplanes or current events?

The level of text is also important. Your child should be able to read the text with some assistance from you. The text should be easy enough for your child to enjoy the reading, yet challenging enough that it helps your child grow.

What are the components of the new Read to Achieve law?

The Read to Achieve program is part of the Excellent Public Schools Act, which became law in July, 2012, and applies to all schools for the 2013-14 school year. The law requires North Carolina’s third grade students to demonstrate proficiency in reading before being promoted to the fourth grade. Third graders can demonstrate proficiency in reading by passing the NC Reading End-of-Grade (EOG) test, by passing the NC Read to Achieve test, or by completing a reading portfolio. The NC Reading EOG and the NC Read to Achieve test will be given in late May, 2014. Students who pass either of these tests will be promoted to grade four.

The third-grade reading portfolio contains passages the student has read, the student’s reading PEP (personal education plan) and the reports from the student’s Class Reading 3D assessments (the statewide formative reading assessment system used by all N.C. K-3 classroom teachers). Beginning the week of Jan. 6, 2014, all third-grade students will read three passages a week. Each passage is followed by five multiple choice questions that relate to a specific Common Core reading standard. A total of 12 reading standards will be assessed. A complete portfolio contains at least three passages for each standard (total of 36 passages) on which the student has scored 80 or above (answered at least four of five questions correctly). Completed portfolios are sent to the superintendent for approval in May, 2014.

Some students are exempt from the law, including the following: exceptional education students who take the Extend 1 reading EOG test; Limited English Proficient students who have received less than two years of ESL services; and students who have been retained more than once in grades K-3. Third-grade students who do not pass either the reading EOG test or the Read to Achieve test do not have a complete portfolio, and who are not exempt from the law are required to attend a six-week summer reading camp.

During the reading camp, students will receive intense reading instruction and will continue to work on their portfolios. At the end of the reading camp, the students will again be given the Read to Achieve Test. Students who demonstrate reading proficiency by either passing the Read to Achieve Test or by completing their reading portfolios will be promoted to grade four.

Students who are not promoted to grade four will be placed in a fourth-grade classroom, where they will receive at least 90 minutes of uninterrupted reading instruction every day. The students will also receive instruction in all of the N.C. fourth-grade curriculum standards (The Power School record for these students will have a “retained” label). The students will continue to work on their reading portfolios. Students who have completed their reading portfolios by Nov. 1, 2014, will be promoted to grade four and have the “retained” label removed from their record. They will remain in the same classroom setting and continue to receive at least 90 minutes of uninterrupted reading instruction every day for the rest of the year.

The Read to Achieve program contains a number of other provisions, including a Kindergarten Entry Assessment, a parent notification component and development of district and school reading plans. The Kindergarten Entry Assessment will assess the following domains of school readiness: language and literacy/math skills; cognition and general knowledge; approaches toward learning; physical well-being and motor development and social/ emotional development. Kindergarten students will be given the assessment during the first weeks of school beginning with the 2014-15 school year.

The parent notification component requires school districts to inform the parents of students in grades K-3 if the students are not reading on grade level. Multiple measures must be used to determine whether or not a student is reading on grade level. Each school district is required to develop a districtwide K-12 reading plan, and each school is required to develop a schoolwide reading plan. The district plan and the school plans must address the components of the North Carolina Read to Achieve Comprehensive Reading Plan K12. More information can be found regarding Read to Achieve by searching the online Read to Achieve livebinder (www.livebinders.com/play/play/850102).

How are the Lee County Schools responding to the Common Core reading standards, the new reading EOG test and the Read to Achieve law?

During the first year of the implementation of the Common Core reading standards (2012-13), the teachers spent many professional development hours studying the new standards and creating new pacing guides and unit plans. The Understanding by Design template was used to develop unit plans. Teachers from all grade levels across the district worked together in both small groups and large groups to plan and develop lessons based on the new standards.

Grade-level reading lists were developed for the elementary and middle schools that reflected the new standards. Many of the books from the lists were purchased for classrooms across the district. For example, classroom sets of “The Last Days of Lincoln” and “The Last Days of Kennedy” were purchased for fifth-grade classrooms in all of the elementary schools. These two books are used to teach informational reading skills and the social studies topics studied in the fifth grade. These books contain highly engaging text, accompanied by excellent text features — including timelines, maps, pictures and appendices.

In preparation for the current school year, teachers across the county met for two weeks last summer to develop weekly curriculum maps for the entire school year. The curriculum maps included the Common Core standards, text resources, assessments, videos and website links for reading, writing, spelling, math, science and social studies for each week of the year. These maps (along with all worksheets, assessments and website links) have been placed on a dedicated website accessible for all teachers at any time.

Afterschool professional development sessions for reading are going to be offered for teachers in grades two through five beginning in January. These sessions will include the topics of choosing appropriate complex texts and implementing lessons using the close reading strategy. Middle and high school English teachers across the district have met continually throughout the year to develop unit plans and benchmark assessments. All Lee County K-12 teachers have participated in professional development this year to learn how to use the new North Carolina HomeBase website, which contains hundreds of lessons and other resources to teach the N.C. curriculum for all grade levels.

The many hours of planning and professional development, and the purchase of new materials, are designed to help teachers assist students in meeting the Common Core reading standards. The Reading EOG test results are a measure of how well the students are performing on the new standards. Over time, educators can study the results to see which classroom strategies are the most effective. Previous research has shown that reading and discussing quality literature and informational text correlated with science and social studies topics is far more effective in developing strong readers than focusing on “test-taking strategies” or test prep worksheets.

The Lee County Schools have developed an implementation guide for the Read to Achieve Program. The Guide includes a specific timeline, documentation and guidelines for the third-grade student reading portfolios and passages. A Student Reading Progress Report is being sent to the parents of all students in Kindergarten twice a year and all students in grades one through three three times a year. The Reading Report shows how well the students have performed on the reading quarterly assessments and the Reading 3D mClass assessment, as well as the students’ reading grades.

The Reading Report not only tells a parent whether or not their child is reading on grade level, but also indicates how far above or below grade level their child is reading. Personal Education Plans (PEPs) have been developed for each student who is reading below grade level in all grades. The PEPs include the students’ performance on assessments, reading strengths and areas for improvement, specific reading goals and a description of reading interventions designed to help the student reach the goals. Plans are being discussed regarding the Lee County Summer Reading Camp. Hopefully, classes will be small and the students will receive more individual instruction.

Lee County has recently formed a districtwide literacy committee. This committee will develop a pre-K through grade 12 literacy plan that will both meet the requirements of the Read to Achieve Law and provide guidelines for reading instruction during the coming years.