Experts say a child’s ability to read by the third or fourth grade — or not — is one of the strongest early indicators there is about his likelihood for success or failure in school and later in life.
Maine is on par with most other states in terms of fourth-grade reading ability, but the state once was among the best in the country. Worse, far less than half the state and nation’s fourth-graders are considered proficient in reading, as measured by a top test. That’s causing concern among education and economic officials.
“Anybody in teaching knows that by third grade you pretty much know what the outcome’s going to be,” said Dr. J.E. Stone, president of an organization called the Education Consumers Foundation in Arlington, Va., highlighting why Maine’s flat fourth-grade reading scores for almost 20 years are increasingly being cited as a top priority for improvement.
In 1994, about 41 percent of Maine’s fourth-graders were reading at grade level or above, according to results from the National Assessment of Education Progress, a test that measures students in a variety of subjects. That was 13 percentage points above the national average of 28 percent. Maine’s scores were the highest in the nation.
Today that gap is gone.
In 2011, after years of flat scores for Maine and improving ones in other states, Maine’s fourth-grade reading proficiency rate, according to NAEP, is 32 percent — dead even with the national average.
For this reason, the Maine Development Foundation gave the state a red flag for reading proficiency this year in its annual Measures of Growth report. The foundation set a benchmark of 50 percent of Maine students reaching reading proficiency by 2015. Instead, the state’s scores moved in the opposite direction.
“This is a predictor of future student success and public costs as well as a measure of the effectiveness of previous investments [in education]. … Ultimately, positive movement on many other economic indicators starts with kids having the tools to become productive members of society,” the foundation said in its report.
Maine Department of Education Commissioner Steve Bowen agrees and has made improving elementary reading proficiency one of the central goals of his administration.
“Maine has continued to show no progress in reading for far too many years,” Bowen said last November. “There is compelling scientific research about how kids learn to read, but we are not applying those methods universally.”
NAEP and reading are only one measure of Maine’s students, and the state does better according to other tests. The New England Common Assessment Program, which Maine participates in with the other New England states, shows that 68 percent of Maine students have reading proficiency by the beginning of their fifth-grade year — which, because of the test’s timing in the fall, reflects mostly on a student’s abilities at the end of fourth grade.
Maine’s fourth-grade NAEP math scores have risen since 1992, but not as quickly as the national average, although Maine remains above the national average.
Asked Friday what led to Maine’s stagnation, Bowen, who has been Maine’s top education official for about a year, said he prefers to focus on the future rather than the past.
“I think it’s pretty hard to say,” he said. “I don’t know that we want to spend a lot of time backing up and saying what we should have been doing. Our goal now is to make sure we’ve got good policies in place. There is a renewed interest.”
Among the initiatives by the department are working with higher-education institutions to develop better training for teachers and the development of an all-ages statewide literacy plan, which Bowen said will be released in the coming months.
Bowen said some of the most impressive progress is happening at the local level in terms of identifying students’ weaknesses and addressing them early, as well as encouraging and supporting their strengths whenever possible.
“What we’re seeing is districts, frankly without a whole lot of guidance from us, moving in that direction of letting kids move at their own pace,” said Bowen, a former middle and high school teacher. “We just think it’s a promising approach that’s moving us away from this sort of industrial era of educating our children.”
West Bath School, located in rural Maine between the larger communities of Bath and Brunswick, boasted an 88 percent fourth-grade reading proficiency rate according to 2010 NECAP results — compared to a statewide average that year of 67 percent.
The school has high reading proficiency despite a free- and reduced-price lunch rate of about 55 percent, which is a poverty indicator that data shows correlates strongly with literacy levels, according to principal Emily Thompson.
A recent classroom visit offered a ready example of what Bowen means by “letting kids move at their own pace.” For those who fear it means embracing mediocrity, two West Bath students discussing the book “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” should give pause.
The book looked comically large and dauntingly thick in 7-year-old Autumn Nickerson’s hands.
“Wow! How many pages?” a reporter asked.
“Eight hundred something!” said Nickerson, sitting in a reading area at the school where she and her classmates were scattered on cushions and against walls, reading or working one-on-one with their teacher, Ida Beal.
“It’s a long book but it’s worth it,” said Audrey Crews, 8, sitting next to Nickerson with another Harry Potter book in hand. Crews turned to her friend. “It’s better if you read the first books in the series first. It makes more sense.”
Nickerson isn’t the first child to read Harry Potter books, which have sold something on the order of half a billion copies worldwide. But among all those readers, Nickerson might be among the youngest. She’s in second grade.
Money isn’t the problem
While the Maine Development Foundation cited poverty as a possible reason for the drop in scores, a lack of education money is not the problem. Maine spends more on K-12 education — on a per-pupil basis — than most other states.
During the 2010-11 school year, Maine’s K-12 per student expenditures were the eighth highest in the country — at $15,032, according to an annual data summary from the National Education Association. That spending was more than a third higher than the national average of $10,770.
Based on personal income, Maine’s spending ranked fourth in the country in 2009, according to the NEA, the nation’s teachers union, but the state is not spending that money on teacher pay. Maine ranked 36th for teacher salaries in 2010-11, the NEA report shows. Maine’s average teacher salary was $47,182; the national average was $55,623.
However, with declining enrollments, Maine has far more teachers than the national average. The state had the second-lowest student-to teacher-ratio — 10.9 — in the nation in 2010. Only Vermont was lower at 9.6. The national average was 15.6.
Lance Dutson, executive director of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative organization that has published several studies on education issues over the years — many of them compiled by Bowen prior to his becoming education commissioner — said these trends show that the solution for better education outcomes isn’t more money.
“The thing we’re concerned with is how to put some pressure on the system to break through to the next level,” said Dutson. “These are the same issues states all over the country are grasping. We’ve sort of worn out the idea that additional funding increases quality or moves people in these statistical rankings.”
Early intervention is key
If success isn’t about school spending, that leaves what happens between teachers and students as the key factor in reading and other subjects.
One of the major factors contributing to early reading success at West Bath School — other than what Thompson called an exceptionally strong group of teachers at the school — is a local assessment program that’s designed to flag students’ learning challenges early and intervene where necessary. One such program is a system developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association, which monitors student progress throughout the school year.
There also are other formal and informal efforts ranging from one-on-one and small-group work with students to teachers comparing notes outside the school day. It helps that West Bath School houses kindergarten through fifth grade, which Thompson said leads to a detailed and long-term understanding by teachers about each student’s strengths and weaknesses. The school’s library, which has a vibrant, student-friendly website, is also clearly integrated with classroom activities.
“There’s no falling through the cracks here,” said Thompson. “Intervention happens when it needs to happen. This assessment tool allows us to focus our resources where they’re needed.”
The concept of assessment and intervention with individual students who need help is not unique to West Bath School. Some schools have been developing local models for years, which is a process Bowen and the Department of Education are promoting vigorously.
The Bangor School Department, whose elementary schools boast some of the highest fourth-grade NECAP reading scores in Maine despite a 50 percent free- and reduced-lunch rate, has had an aggressive program in place since the 1990s. It includes assessment of every student’s achievement of certain benchmarks on a nearly constant basis as well as training for teachers on interpreting and acting on the data.
“Students are all over the spectrum,” said Superintendent Betsy Webb. “You have to listen to them individually read to understand how fluent they are and it takes teachers having a full bag of tools and knowing how to meet individual needs while moving the whole group. People are correct that test scores should not be the only measure of success but it certainly has to be one of them. Bangor has developed a thoughtful approach of how to use data and I couldn’t be prouder of our students and teachers.”
Stone, at the Education Consumers Foundation, which bills itself as an unbiased source for education data, said schools in most states are woefully inadequate when it comes to assessing students years before they take standardized tests in the third or fourth grade.
“We urge schools to focus more on what’s going on in those early grades,” said Stone. “In Maine and virtually every other state, they barely collect data on those early grades. By the time they take the NAEP test, that’s either four or five years of schooling that’s gone by already, depending on whether the student started in kindergarten or prekindergarten.”
Ryan Neale, a program manager for the Maine Development Foundation, which identified Maine’s fourth-grade reading scores as a problem spot in the state’s future, said that aiming more of the state’s resources at early childhood education is crucial for the state’s future economic prosperity.
“A lot of the data we’ve been seeing lately indicates that investments in early childhood development generates the best bang for the buck,” he said. “The returns are just better if you can build a solid foundation.”