Fourth graders in Arizona read at one of the lowest levels in the country; only nine other states are worse. In the eighth grade, their reading improves slightly but still falls below the nation’s average.
Experts believe a lack of funding, untrained teachers and unmotivated students are to blame.
Specifically, four out of 10 fourth grade students score below basic on reading based upon a report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2013.
Educational institutions in Arizona have experienced deep budget cuts and schools struggle to fill vacant teaching positions leaving some existing teachers overwhelmed.
As a result, students are not getting the one-on-one attention needed to accelerate their poor reading skills. Some teachers are forced to filter their syllabus to simply focus on preparing students for tests, according to Robert Wortman, professor at the University of Arizona and K-12 reading specialist for 13 years.
The teaching to the test culture concerns the president of the national Literacy Research Association.
“We have a huge culture of accountability,” said Patricia Anders, also a professor at the University of Arizona. “Everybody is supposed to be accountable and that becomes the goal rather than the learning, rather than the thinking, rather than raising questions. I think the testing culture is very damaging.”
Wortman believes there are elements of teaching lacking in schools today that play a role in decreasing literacy rates. For example, training that highlights the significance of understanding what is being read rather than just pronouncing words and building confidence in students and monitoring how much reading is done outside class.
Studies show that reading for only 30 minutes a day can raise a child’s literacy level by one grade level yet access and opportunity to reading and writing material can be a struggle especially for low-income families. Income has a large impact on a student’s literacy level mainly because families are unable to purchase books for their children, Wortman and Anders said.
There are cases where parents do not place enough importance upon education because of their bad experiences in school or their low education level, according to Jose Olivas, principal at Roskruge Bilingual Magnet Middle School in Tucson
Anders said the issue is not an easy one to resolve.
“Literacy is complex. It’s not just what’s in our minds or what we as individuals can do, it’s how our system, our culture, our discourse community uses language,” said Anders. “When teachers and a community are very similar they do really well.”
Students often struggle to find an incentive to read books yet some argue that the youth are reading now more than ever with the wave of technology. Technology has helped expand vocabulary and thinking because of the users ability to access information with ease.
“When technology is used well it’s fabulous,” said Wortman. “If you’re reading a book on a Kindle and you’re having trouble with a word you can just highlight it can the meaning will come up. You don’t get that with a textbook.”
Hispanics make up 45 percent of the fourth grade demographic and 49 percent of students score at basic reading test level, but fewer achieve proficient marks like whites, African Americans and Asians.
Many experts believe bilingual students have an advantage that impacts their basic skill levels because of using two languages in the household.
“We are trying to make families understand early on before students are in a classroom setting how important it is to support and read with them and talk with them in whatever the home language so that when they come to school in their own native language they have a strong textual language,” said Terri Clark, Arizona state literacy director. “The science and teaching of reading, the same principles apply whether that student is an English language learner or not.”
Dual-language program schools like Mission View Elementary and Roskruge Bilingual Magnet Middle School developed a system for teachers to support their studentshrough intimate intervention programs. Students who struggle during class time (pre-tests and post-tests are given to the student), are offered summer reading programs and after-school events for parents and students that focus on improving reading.
“We realized that we really have to focus on supporting students that come in with a low foundation through developing early literacy programs starting in preschool to build the home literacy then that will transfer as they move through school,” said Hortensia Cota, principal at Mission View Elementary School.
However, both administrators believe that the key to increasing literacy levels is through passionate teachers who care about the success of their students despite low wages or an increasing workload.
“Our teachers work together as a team to discuss their students strengths and weakness then come up with specific skills that the students need to work on,” said Olivas. “ We make sure we recognize and celebrate a student that has shown improvement in reading. It’s important to give them that support and confidence.”
Arizona has cut $352.5 million from school districts in the 2015-2016 fiscal year and continues to spend less in the coming years. Education officials argue those cuts harm student learning.
“At some point somebody has to say we have to pay for education and children have to be educated,” said Anders. “The way things are going it’s not hopeful as long as the people who are in charge are making the decisions for our children.”
Noor Jarki is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org