Literacy and young students (students of all ages, actually)

The local public radio program, Radio Boston, did a segment on 3rd grade standardized test (called the MCAS) results here in Massachusetts. Yours truly chimed in at about ten minutes into the story.

http://www.wbur.org/2010/06/10/third-grade-reading (update: link is lost to the archives, so sad)

It was a very interesting discussion about what factors into successful literacy test results when it comes to young students.

I am not a fan of standardized tests, to be frank. I think that they are too important in today's curriculum, that they don't look at the whole picture, and that they lead to teaching test taking skills instead of real-life skills.

Success at such tests isn't so much gauged by ability and intellect of student, capability of teacher, and efficiency of school system, as it is on social factors. Does the student read every day, either independently or with a parent? Do they have an intrinsic desire to succeed at challenges? Can they sit still for two hours to take a test? If the answer to those three question is yes, then I doubt the student will fall below "at proficient" status. And what do those things have to do with academics? Nothing, really. Except that the academic instution is responsible for them when it comes time for testing.

What might be useful is a survey that went along with the standardized test. A survey with "often/sometimes/never" responses, like:
How often do you read at home?
Do you get a full night of 8 or more hours of sleep every night?
Do you eat a healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner every day?
Are you able to concentrate for long periods of time?
When something is difficult, do you continue working on solving the problem?

Then you could compare the results of the survey with the results of the test. My guess is , if you had honest answers to the survey, you would see a strong correlation between "never" survey responses and "below profeciency" standardized test results.

The trouble with all of this specifying and correlating is that it doesn't solve the problem of poor literacy among young students. So, what is the answer? Well, I think the answer is that there is no magic ticket, no golden rule. Each struggling community needs to find their own ways to remedy their problems. What works in one place, may not work in another. To any community struggling with this problem, and according to the test results, there are many, there should be an offer of multiple strategies that the school community can shop around to see what fits them.

The reason that there is no specific solution is that there is no one thing to focus on that fixes everything. It's a multifaceted problem that needs a multi-pronged approach to resolution. You need parent education and awareness of the importance of their support at home for a young person's success. You have to build students' resiliency to facing struggles of any kind, whether a standardized test question or a mean student on the playground. You have to make sure teachers are well-trained, well-supported and well-funded when it comes to teaching, especially teaching literacy. And, most importantly, everyone has to focus on why this is so important. Not for good grades or good test results or school status reports but because having strong literacy skills is important to having personal success. Not just in the work place, but as a citizen and as a conscientious person.

Of course, such an approach would be expensive, even more expensive than the lucrative standardized testing business, and would call for entire community involvement, instead of letting one group (most often teachers) take the fall. I don't see that happening over night. But perhaps with the right vision from the right leader, it could. I don't see any current educational leader doing this but someday, maybe, one will emerge.

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