Literacy at BRHS a concern

‘It needs to be a school-wide focus, not just something for English teachers to think about.’
Posted:  Thursday, November 9, 2017 - 12:00pm

According to Boothbay Region High School teacher Mark Gorey, literacy at the school is slipping. At the Oct. 11 CSD School Committee meeting, he voiced his concern and accepted an invitation to sit down with the Boothbay Register to discuss it.

During the committee meeting, Gorey said a number of students are scoring below the 60th percentile on the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) test.

Said Gorey, “In looking at NWEA reports from last year (fall 2016), a couple of the grade spans were below the sixtieth percentile — about 21 percent of them … For example, students at the high school were tested once in their advisor/advisee groups during (last) fall, for math and English … out of a cohort of 19 of my students I've tested this fall, 10 (or 52 percent) scored at the 63rd or lower percentile for their grade level on the NWEA reading test. This means that students are not on track, if you will, to have a college-ready reading level or possibly even a sufficient reading level for participating as citizens in our democracy and being informed.”
As of this fall, Gorey said no further NWEA testing has been done in the smaller advisor groups and there has been no administrative call for it. He said he has tested some of his students, but believes he is in the minority. Gorey also said BRHS used to have a school-wide literacy initiative used in every classroom.

“That, with various other initiatives, has gotten diffused and kind of pushed off to the side.”

When holding a workshop to prepare students for the SAT’s last year, Gorey said it quickly became apparent to him and to Principal Dan Welch how much trouble some students were having with math prompts on the practice tests.

“The literacy level is very high for math on the SAT's, quite high,” said Welch. “But the results last year showed that 70 percent of juniors are at or above grade level (for math).”

So, despite the reading difficulty, students did particularly well on the math section, but what does literacy at BRHS look like?

The NWEA results were not readily available; however, results of other tests such as the Maine Educational Assessment (MEA), Maine High School Assessment (MHSA), and New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) are available on the Maine Department of Education website. The data covers grades three through eight for MEA and NECAP for 2005-2006 through 2013-2014, and overall high school results for MHSA from the same years. Because data on the department’s website is only available up to the 2013-2014 school year for most results and summaries, years 2014-2015, 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 could paint a different picture.

The 2015-2016 MEA English and Language Arts and Literacy summary report (which differs from the results) showed that 61.58 percent of BRES students and 60 percent of BRHS students were performing at or above the state’s expectations for literacy. The 2016-2017 numbers were no significant change for BRES students (60.56 percent, roughly a 1 percent decrease), but BRHS students did significantly better, gaining nearly 10 percent, with 69.64 percent.

According to MHSA data spanning from 2009-2010 to 2013-2014, students meeting or exceeding state standards dropped almost 15 percent from 57.1 percent to 42.2 percent. With no significant increase in students who did not meet standards (a 2 percent increase), students who partially met standards increased nearly 13 percent. Students who met standards decreased by just over 12 percent.

The NECAP results following the graduating class of 2018 from grades four through eight showed a slight uptick in partially proficient reading scores— from 10 percent in fourth grade to 14 percent in eighth grade — and an upward trend in proficiency despite a dip in sixth grade— 31 percent, 36 percent, 27 percent, 39 percent, and 42 percent in grades four through eight respectively. Both sets of data for students below proficiency and distinctly proficient students are suppressed values, with the lowest scores omitted.

However, even without considering these much higher numbers, Gorey feels 21 percent of students struggling with reading and literacy is far too many. So, he proposed hiring a literacy coach who would come into the school and train teachers and other instructors on bolstering reading competency in their classrooms. “How do we go about remediation in the most effective best practice — like reading strategies — to help students?” asked Gorey. “There is a lot of research out there that if students are behind as of even grade three, they don’t catch up. But we have to find other ways to try.”

Gorey brought up his literacy concern last year at a school committee meeting, but was informed he was bringing it up too late in the budget process to make any changes involving funding. However, Gorey said the superintendent, the board, and Welch were all on board with the idea of tackling the literacy issue.

“So, this year, I kind of pointedly brought it up in October before it really gets underway,” said Gorey. “The question becomes ‘what level of funding?’ Are they going to go with a consultant who, once in a while, is interacting or would they hire someone full-time? As far as initiatives go, I think it’s one of the most important that we can focus on and I think that other initiatives have displaced it.”

As for the concern about working literacy structure into the budget before it is too late, Welch said he believes AOS 98 will seek targeted instruction and will not likely take on a full-time specialist.

“We're beginning to have this conversation right now. We'll be looking at training staff, here,” said Welch. “But the fact of the matter is we're a very small school.”

And having a small base of students will not necessarily reflect an airtight assessment of their learning. However, an aim toward a school-wide literacy program would be an effort to close a gap in reading levels which can creep into subjects such as math, science and social studies.

“And that’s a problem,” said Gorey. “There is plenty of room for teachers in (other) disciplines to figure out strategies to assist their students in doing better on the SAT reading portion. It needs to be a school-wide focus, not just something for English teachers to think about.”