New school year brings heightened focus on reading

New school year brings heightened focus on reading

Kindergarten teacher Cassie Kerber (left) works with Eriel Evans, 5, (center) and Kaniya Batton, 6, in a literacy unit in their class at the Next Door Foundation in Milwaukee. Early-childhood literacy has taken on greater emphasis in Wisconsin schools this year as new, higher standards come into play.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff

Kindergarten teacher Cassie Kerber (left) works with Eriel Evans, 5, (center) and Kaniya Batton, 6, in a literacy unit in their class at the Next Door Foundation in Milwaukee. Early-childhood literacy has taken on greater emphasis in Wisconsin schools this year as new, higher standards come into play.

Push is on to improve achievement levels

By Erin Richards and Akbar Ahmed of the Journal Sentinel

Sept. 3, 2013

With the new school year underway this week, the countdown is on for kindergarten teacher Cassie Kerber — she has nine months to help more than 20 children be ready to read for first grade.

One tool she and other early education teachers in Wisconsin will use this year to help meet that goal is a new statewide assessment aimed at determining the pre-literacy skills of young children, and getting those who are struggling more help, and quicker than before.

Wisconsin’s budget set aside $2.5 million this year to fund a universal literacy screener for kindergartners and first-graders, as part of a number of initiatives aimed at ramping up reading achievement in the state after years of stagnant test scores.

task force on reading spearheaded two years ago by Gov. Scott Walker and State Superintendent Tony Evers set much of the activity in motion, as have new nationwide academic standards adopted by Wisconsin that are raising the bar for what students should know and be able to do in math, English and language arts.

The spotlight also is on teacher training programs. Graduates from traditional education schools or alternative certification programs will soon have to take an exam that tests their ability to teach reading before they can get their licenses.

“Wisconsin needs to be a leader on this nationwide, to close achievement gaps around reading,” said John Johnson, spokesman for the Department of Public Instruction.

Unlike math achievement, which has seen some upward movement in the state and in Milwaukee Public Schools in the past decade, reading scores have been mostly flat and even fallen for some subgroups — such as for black students in MPS.

Statewide, reading scores have shown little to no improvement since the 1990s, while scores have risen in other states.

In 1994, Wisconsin’s fourth-graders ranked second nationwide in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a respected national exam taken by a sampling of students.

By 2011, Wisconsin students had lower reading scores than their peers in 15 other states.

New screening tool

The new universal literacy screener, called Phonological Awareness Literacy Screener, or PALS, was implemented last year for some kindergartners in Wisconsin and will be expanded this year to include 4- and 5-year-old kindergartners and first-graders.

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