By Oak Ridge Board of Education
We have been reading a lot lately about the dire straits of reading instruction and students’ abilities in reading, especially at the early grades. Although there are challenges, there is also momentum to make positive impacts on students’ reading proficiencies in all grades.
What is happening with elementary literacy?
Two school years ago, the state changed (for the better) the English Language Arts and math standards to make them more rigorous in order to ensure that Tennessee high school graduates will be better prepared in the future for college and careers. Most public schools welcomed the change because the former standards just weren’t serving Tennessee students well. However, changing standards also meant changing state assessments.
In Oak Ridge, we saw a drop in our elementary reading results on state exams after these changes. The drops in reading results were especially evident with our economically disadvantaged students.
For us, this was and is unacceptable. We believe that all students can succeed, and we have expanded our literacy initiative as a result. This literacy initiative includes providing additional time and support starting in kindergarten all the way through high school to students who struggle in reading. We have trained reading specialists who provide intensive instruction to struggling students. We have a summer bookmobile program that is expanding to multiple elementary schools in order to help reduce summer reading setback. We have professional development for teachers on improving reading and writing instruction in the classroom, and we have purchased research-based materials to support them. In addition, we have recently been provided an opportunity to work with the Carnegie Foundation and the Tennessee Department of Education to systematically analyze our early literacy efforts in order to improve student outcomes. This work will begin in April 2016 and will last through September 2018.
But what about testing?
This school year, the state tests for English Language Arts have changed. The TNReady was created to align with the more rigorous standards adopted two years ago. We don’t know what will happen to our scores based on the TNReady exam. Its rollout has been fraught with difficulties; for example, it was supposed to be online, and then was turned into a paper/pencil format at the last minute when the online platform crashed. Because our students were preparing for an online assessment all year, our youngest students didn’t even know how to fill out a bubble sheet to answer their questions when they received an answer sheet on paper. Some of our students said that they circled their answers or put check marks in the bubble instead. The state recognized the magnitude of the problems associated with the testing and is actually altering its requirements for teacher and student evaluations as a result.
Will we therefore hear that our students have done poorly on the tests when our results come out in the fall?
It is of critical importance to remember that in a changing test environment when standards and assessments are in flux, we need to look at more than the state report card to tell us what our students truly can and cannot do.
But what about phonics?
Our youngest students absolutely learn phonics. They also learn sight words, and they learn to read starting with picture books and working their way up to chapter books.
Please be wary of misinformation. If you ever wonder about what is happening in our classrooms, please come visit so that you can see for yourself the work that our students and teachers are doing.
What can we do to help literacy in our community?
Oak Ridge is changing. We have more students in need than ever before. We believe that all children deserve a pathway to success, which is why Oak Ridge Schools has in place the Seven Keys to College and Career Readiness. The first key is for students to be reading proficiently at grade 3, and we are working very hard with our students in this area starting in preschool on up.
However, we have an achievement gap between our non-economically disadvantaged students and our economically disadvantaged students. This is not a problem unique to Oak Ridge, but it is true for Oak Ridge.
Some immediate areas in which the community could help are:
- Volunteer! Whether or not you have children in the school system, we’d love to have you come read to elementary school children. Contact Allison Peters at Willow Brook Elementary School for more information.
- Support the summer bookmobile project. You can donate to this amazing project at https://www.gofundme.com/tnbookmobile/donate?amt=100.
- Support the schools! We need your partnership. Teachers love their students and are committed to their success. Helping teachers help kids by supporting teachers in and out of the classroom is essential for them to continue the incredible work they do every day.
Thank you to everyone who is working in partnership with us in order to help us make strides with all students, including those who struggle. The Oak Ridge Schools Education Foundation, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, ORAU, UCOR, Altrusa, and Rotary are some of the organizations that seek to make a positive difference with Oak Ridge students. We’d also like to acknowledge pastors Derrick Hammond and Jake Morrill, who have been working in positive partnership with the school system based on feedback from the community forums. Finally, there are countless volunteers who donate their time and resources in many ways, such as assisting in classrooms, mentoring students, or leading clubs.
We believe in the highest quality instruction every day for every child. We know we have some challenges; however, Oak Ridge Schools is committed to continuous improvement in order to ensure that all of our students succeed. With our approach and working together with the community, we believe we will give our students their best opportunity for success.
The Oak Ridge Board of Education is Keys Fillauer, chairman; Bob Eby, vice chair; Angi Agle; Paige Marshall; and Laura McLean.
Note: The submitted letters and columns published in the Opinion section do not necessarily reflect the views of Oak Ridge Today or its staff.
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