California Districts Vary Enormously In Reading Achievement, Report Finds
Some districts with substantial numbers of low-income Latino students vastly outperform others when it comes to reading and writing. The results appear to have more to do with how schools are teaching students to read and less about their family’s income or their English proficiency.
That’s according to a new report from the California Reading Coalition, a literacy advocacy group made up of organizations of educators, advocates and researchers.
The report ranks 285 districts based on how many Latino third graders from low-income families met or exceeded grade-level standards in English language arts on the Smarter Balanced test in 2022. Districts with fewer than 100 low-income Latino third-graders were excluded.
The group chose to look only at the scores of low-income Latino students because they make up 43% of all students in California and have historically low test scores. Statewide, almost three-fourths of low-income Latino students did not reach grade level standards in reading and writing in 2022. In addition, many school districts have a substantial number of low-income Latino third graders, whereas the number of low-income African American and Native American third-graders is often too low to be reported.
Even in the top districts on the list, many students are not reading and writing at grade level. The top two districts, Bonita Unified in Los Angeles and Etiwanda Elementary in San Bernardino, had a little more than half of low-income Latino students reading and writing at grade level by third grade.
The number of these students reading and writing at grade level dropped by an average of 8 percentage points between 2019 and 2022, according to the analysis.
“It was bad before, but now it’s gotten catastrophic. I don’t know how people can hear those numbers and not be alarmed,” said Todd Collins, one of the organizers of the California Reading Coalition.
It’s not clear exactly how each district is teaching reading, but Collins believes the data show some districts have made more effort than others.
“What we see is the ones that have strong reading results focus on reading,” Collins said. “This is a problem that yields to effort. Getting districts and the state to focus on literacy will pay dividends.”
Chris Ann Horsley, current school board member and previous director of curriculum for Bonita Unified, the top-scoring district on the list, said the district has been focused on improving literacy by using methods based in research, sometimes referred to as the “science of reading,” since the early 2000s, when research came out from the National Reading Panel.
She said the district added a reading intervention specialist at every school and replaced the curriculum they had, Benchmark, a popular program among districts in California, with Systemic Instruction in Phonemic Awareness, Phonics and Sight Words, or SIPPS, for the early grades, from kindergarten to second grade. SIPPS is a program that focuses on skills needed to learn to read that are sometimes left out or less prioritized in other curricula, including phonics, or learning how to sound out words.
“We started teaching phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and reading comprehension,” said Horsley. “We do heavy doses of foundational skills followed by a great amount of reading, fiction and non-fiction.”
Horsley said the district also trains parents on how to help with reading at home.
“Kids are excited about it and families are excited about it because their students do so well,” Horsley said.
Jeannie Tavolazzi, assistant superintendent of instruction and pupil services for Etiwanda Unified, attributed the district’s relatively high scores in reading to strong partnerships with families, annual training for teachers on how to teach reading and writing and English language development, and curriculum.
She said the district uses another popular curriculum, Wonders, and supplements it with a phonics program called Project Read, to give students more of those foundational skills that research shows are necessary to learn to read.
All elementary schools in the district have time set aside for classrooms to focus on phonics and guided reading, based on the individual needs of students. Teachers work with small groups of students at that time to focus on foundational reading skills like phonics and vocabulary, and also work with English learners to practice speaking and listening in English.
Tavolazzi said the science of reading is sometimes misinterpreted as being only about phonics, when in reality, research shows students also need lots of other skills including vocabulary, comprehension and practice reading.
“Yes, we focus on phonics and foundational skills, but we are also focusing on making sure that students are reading a volume of texts at their instructional reading level. In order for students to comprehend what they’re reading, they need to have experiences with a wide variety of texts at their instructional level,” Tavolazzi said.
The report also compared school districts based on the percentage of low-income Latino students who have low proficiency in English, based on their scores on the English Language Proficiency Assessment of California, a test that English learners take each year until they are deemed fluent. Many low-income Latino students are native English speakers and never took the test; others may have started school as English learners and have since become fluent, or are still learning English but scored higher on the proficiency test.
None of the school districts where more than 40% of low-income Latino students had low English proficiency scored among the top fifth of the districts.
“When you have a very large percentage of low proficiency English learners, you’re not going to show up high on the list,” said Collins. “You may still be very good at teaching reading, but almost half of your kids don’t proficiently speak English yet, so you’re not going to be able to see it yet.”
But even when compared to each other, there are big differences among districts with large percentages of English learners. In Conejo Valley Unified in Ventura County and Gonzales Unified in Monterey County, 30% of low-income Latino students met or exceeded grade level in English language arts. By contrast, in West Contra Costa Unified in Contra Costa County, only 12% of low-income Latino students met or exceeded grade level in English language arts, and in Ravenswood City Unified in San Mateo County, only 4% did.
Collins said districts like Conejo Valley and Gonzales should be commended.
“Given that over 40% of their kids are lower proficiency English learners, that shows they’re doing an impressive job teaching the kids they have to learn how to read,” Collins said.
Dena Sellers, director of elementary education for Conejo Valley Unified, credited their relatively higher numbers among districts with high portions of English learners, to one-on-one and small group support for students, regular evaluation of student’s reading to provide instruction based on what they need, and strong partnerships with parents and guardians. In addition, she said the district provides a summer learning camp for some students to get extra instruction in reading and writing and English language skills.
The report found that many of the districts with the largest drops in low-income Latino students reading at grade level from 2019 to 2022, after distance learning during the pandemic, also had higher percentages of students learning English.
Only six districts studied increased the number of low-income Latino students reading and writing at grade level between 2019 and 2022, the report found.
Newark Unified in the Bay Area increased its numbers of low-income Latino students reading and writing at grade level by 5 percentage points. Hanford Elementary and Burton Elementary school districts in the Central Valley, Victor Elementary in San Bernardino and Evergreen Elementary in San Jose all increased by 1 percentage point.
Palo Alto Unified had an increase of 9 percentage points, more than any other district. Collins believes this is because the district, where he serves on the school board, made early literacy a top priority in 2021, with specific goals.
“This is a district that had a real problem,” said Collins. “They focused on it and founded a multi-faceted initiative to go after it.”
The district began implementing more phonics instruction, in addition to other curriculum, and providing training and demonstration lessons in teaching reading for all elementary school teachers. Students in Palo Alto Unified are also now assessed for reading to determine strengths and areas for improvement, and screened for risk of dyslexia. The district also set specific goals to increase the percentage of Latino, African American and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students, English learners, low-income students and students with disabilities.
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