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Schenectady High seniors read at sixth-grade level

Schenectady High seniors read at sixth-grade level

Schenectady High seniors read at sixth-grade level
Schenectady High School is shown in this January 2016 file photo.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

Schenectady High School seniors on average are reading at a sixth grade level, district officials told the school board Wednesday night as part of their quarterly academic report.

Schenectady students perform far below national norms at all grades and on all subjects, according to the presentation, which painted an overall academic picture that one board member described as “sobering,” another as “horrifying.”

Just over a quarter of the district’s students in kindergarten through sixth grade scored higher than the 50th percentile nationally on internal English assessments, and black, Hispanic and low-income students all performed even lower. The district performs slightly better in math, but still less than 30 percent of the early-grade students scored in the 50th percentile or higher nationally.

The numbers aren’t new. The district has consistently tallied scores with less than 20 percent of students scoring proficient on state English tests. Four years ago, the district estimated that 80 percent of its students were reading “significantly below” grade level, Superintendent Larry Spring said Thursday.

But the data presented Wednesday painted a stark picture for school board members.

“What horrifies me is that the kids are so academically behind, I don’t care how you measure it,” school board member Cheryl Nechamen said at Wednesday’s meeting. “I’ve been saying the same thing for six years now, and it never gets better.”

The reading level scores come from an internal test the district uses to figure out where its students stand but is not used as part of a grade in actual classes. Students take the tests online, and the test adapts to how the student performs. The grade level score — instructional reading level — is meant to measure the grade level that a student can expect to comprehend 80 percent of material written at the level. Over 500 high school seniors participated on the test this fall.

The district’s eighth-grade students scored at a fifth-grade level; tenth-graders at a sixth-grade level. High school juniors scored the highest of any grade, with the average junior reading at the level expected of students halfway through sixth grade, according to STAR Reading measure established by education company Renaissance Learning.

Nationwide, literacy remains a persistent problem. On the National Assessment of Education Progress — a widely respected longitudinal study of academic performance — only 37 percent of high school seniors nationwide scored proficient on the reading test, down from when the test was first taken in 1992.

In Schenectady, school board members started to press district officials for more specifics about what the scores meant and what was being done to address the reading gaps clearly present at the district’s highest grades.

“This has been an ongoing problem since I’ve been on the board,” board member Dharam Hitlall said. “So how are these kids graduating?”

Spring told the board that reading skills were critical to help students in finishing the required courses and passing required tests to graduate but that it was still possible for a student reading far below reading level to graduate. Yes, Spring said, seniors can meet graduation requirements, while reading at a sixth-grade level.

“Being a poor reader makes it more difficult and less likely a student gets a high school diploma, but it is not the end all be all,” Spring said.
Spring refutes the argument that “it never gets better,” citing the district’s improving graduation rates and Regents exams passage rates in recent years. Last year, 76 percent of students passed the state’s English Regents exam, up from 66 percent in 2014.

While at the lower grades, the district is working to establish a consistent literacy program across schools and classes, the farther along a student gets the more difficult it is to remedy reading deficiencies, Spring said. And the district is having a hard time filling the high school reading specialist positions they have money for.

Spring also pointed to the district’s state funding levels — which fall far below what the state’s funding mechanism says the district should get — the level of students who move in and out of the district and the intense and persistent poverty that many Schenectady students live in as contributing factors to the low reading levels.

Beyond the early literacy plan, which would take over a decade to impact the reading levels of high school seniors on its own, the district is also looking to expand the diversity of reading options schools have for students. The district wants to increase the diversity of book offerings and give high school teachers in subjects like science and social studies more opportunities to provide texts to students that teach an advanced subject through a lower reading level. And by providing students more choices, district officials hope they will increase interest and passion in reading.
“We need more books,” Spring said. “As we have more opportunity to do that, we need to think culturally about what kinds of things should our kids be reading. . . . They should be able to see themselves in those kinds of stories.”

In the meantime, many Schenectady High School students will graduate and enter college or career reading far below grade level.

“A kid graduating from high school that’s got that sixth-grade reading level, they are going to struggle, they struggled in high school, they should not reasonably expect that the struggle will end in [college],” Spring said.

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