The 40-year-old paper boy

A paperboy from sixth grade through high school, Peter Sipe is still distributing newspapers, he writes in The 40-Year-Old Paper Boy. A sixth-grade English teacher in Boston, he picks up stacks of the free daily Metro at the subway station.Paperboy Metro Pic

The Metro is “a packet of nonfiction texts: editorials, letters, interviews, reviews, horoscopes, entertainment, sports, etc. (And, yup, news.)” Students like reading it. And it’s free.

“It’s great for all the normal stuff a teacher does: finding the main idea, determining the author’s purpose, learning vocabulary in context,” Sipe writes.

He especially likes using the newspaper “because it teaches kids stuff they need to know.”

Several weeks ago, a student asked what “the Hub” was. No one in the class of Bostonians knew their city’s nickname.

“So we did a quick primer on city nicknames: the Big Apple, Tinseltown, the Windy City, etc. Now we all know that Beantown is the Hub.

In addition to teaching students about the “5 Ws,” Sipe tells them the most important question one can ask when reading an article is so what?

Most of my students hadn’t known what the Hub is: so what?

Well, most of my students do not read with the competence we should expect of 6th graders in the world’s richest country. And as E.D. Hirsch says“We need to see the reading comprehension problem for what it primarily is – a knowledge problem. There is no way around the need for children to gain broad general knowledge in order to gain broad general proficiency in reading.” 

I wince when I think of the years of fog my students had been reading through, not knowing why articles kept mentioning a curiously capitalized spoke holder.

I think many poor readers don’t expect what they read to make sense.

NAEP: 38% of 12th-graders are ready for college

Thirty-eight percent of 12th-graders read well enough for college coursework and 39 percent have the necessary math skills, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Students who score “proficient” in reading and between “basic” and “proficient” in math are prepared to pass college courses, analysts said. It wasn’t possible to judge career readiness.

High school graduation rates are up, but many students start college in remedial courses. Dropout rates are high for poorly prepared students.

“A lot of times we’re getting kids to graduate by asking less of them, not more of them,” says David Conley, director of the Center for Educational Policy Research at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

“The question we have to ask ourselves is, how is it that we have probably twice that number of kids taking college-type prep courses, and yet only half of them are getting to the knowledge level they need? What’s going on in courses that are supposed to prepare kids for college?” Professor Conley asks.

NAEP is optimistic compared to ACT, which estimates that only about a quarter of ACT test-takers are prepared to succeed in college.

Story Time From Space

Story Time From Space features astronauts reading books that encourage a love of exploration and science. From the International Space Station, NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins reads Max Goes to the International Space Station by author and astrophysicist Jeffrey Bennett.

Why more kids are reading Kafka

Common Core’s list of books, stories, poems and plays isn’t supposed to be an assignment list, but teachers may be using it that way, reports Vox. “Appendix B” is boosting the popularity of stories such as Kafka’s Metamorphosis, according to a Renaissance Learning report.

Screen_shot_2014-05-07_at_5.16.33_pm

A Weed Is a Flower: The Life of George Washington Carver, a picture-book  example of nonfiction reading for kindergartners and first-graders, was more than 100 times more likely to be read in 2012-13 than it was 2010-11.

Classics such as The Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird are even more popular.

Some worry that students won’t read authors who didn’t make the list, such as James Baldwin.

“It’s a misuse of Appendix B to make it a curriculum,” says Carol Jago, a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, which helped develop the standards. “It was never intended to be so. But people are just nervous about doing exactly what the Common Core says.”

Starting in middle school, students choose independent reading that’s below their grade level, according to the report. In sixth through 11th grade, students choose books written at the fifth-grade level. That pops up to seventh grade in 12th grade.

NAEP: 26% of 12th graders are proficient in math

The latest Nation’s Report Card shows 12th graders haven’t improved in math and reading since 2009. Only 26 percent score as proficient in math and 37 percent in reading. Furthermore, “despite more than a decade of federal policies meant to close achievement gaps, the margin between white and Latino students in reading remains just as large as it was 15 years ago, and the margin between black and white students has widened over time,” reports the Washington Post. White students haven’t improved;  black students’ average reading scores have fallen.

Percentage of students at or above the Proficient level in 2013

A pie chart shows the overall percentage of students at or above the Proficient level in mathematics in 2013 was 26.A pie chart shows the overall percentage of students at or above the Proficient level reading in 2013 was 38.

Fourth and eighth graders are improving — slowly but steadily — on NAEP, but those gains disappear by the end of high school. Rising graduation rates may play a role by keeping weaker students in the testing pool.

Latinos are improving in math, noted Education Trust. So are Asian/Pacific Islanders, who already were far ahead of the norm.

If not for “modest” improvement by the weakest students, scores would have gone down, writes Jill Barshay on Washington Monthly‘s College Guide.

Core compatible? ‘High low’ books

When a teenager has a Green Eggs and Ham reading level, what’s a teacher to do? “High-interest, low readability” books used to deal with adult themes in very simple vocabulary and short sentences, writes Christina A. Samuels on Education Week. The second-grade level was the starting point.

Now Saddleback Educational Publishing’s Teen Emergent Reader Library offers books that start at a pre-kindergarten reading level.

What is a pre-k reading level? Well, every page has “full-color, riveting photographs.”

The publisher claims “this series offers middle and high school teachers the solution for differentiating instruction while still teaching grade-level content and meeting Common Core standards.”

For example, they can read a book on homelessness — or look at the full-color photos — and discuss the issue. But how does that meet Common Core standards, which call for students to read — and read closely — “complex literary and informational texts?”

“Picking books that appeal to an older audience and use lower-level vocabulary is a really sound concept for teen readers,” said Barbara Stripling, the president of the American Library Association. “They don’t want to be reading about dogs and cats, they want to be reading about Beyoncé.”

Sophisticated knowledge does not always have to come with long words and complex sentence structure, teachers say.

. . . For example, Soldier’s Heart, a book by Gary Paulsen about the devastating effects of the Civil War on a young Union soldier, is appropriate for middle school students but uses language at a 2nd grade level of mastery, (Professor Teri) Lesesne said. Night, Elie Wiesel’s autobiographical account of the horrors of a Nazi death camp, is written at a 5th grade level, she said.

If students have reached their teens without being able to read . . . Isn’t this make-believe?

Of 183 University of North Carolina basketball and football players a tutor researched since 2005, 8 to 10 percent read below the third-grade level, writes New York Times columnist Joe Nocera. Sixty percent read between the fourth- and eighth-grade levels, says Mary Willingham, a reading specialist turned whistle-blower.

Many were eligible for college sports because their high school grades were good enough to outweigh very low SAT scores.

PARCC test is ‘stupid, impossible’ and ‘weird’

As a big supporter of Common Core standards, literacy consultant Rebecca Steinitz asked her seventh-grade daughter to take a practice test released by the PARCC consortium. It’s a “stupid, impossible test” filled with “weird questions” that “make no sense,” reported Eva.

Eva aced Massachusetts’ old exams, her mother writes on the Huffington Post. (It’s an open letter to President Obama, whose private-schooled daughters won’t take core-aligned exams, but that’s just a gimmick.) Next year, Eva will take a PARCC-designed exam in school.

Here’s one of the “crazy” questions on the practice test:

You have learned about electricity by reading two articles, “Energy Story” and “Conducting Solutions,” and viewing a video clip titled “Hands-On Science with Squishy Circuits.” In an essay, compare the purpose of the three sources. Then analyze how each source uses explanations, demonstrations, or descriptions of experiments to help accomplish its purpose. Be sure to discuss important differences and similarities between the information gained from the video and the information provided in the articles. Support your response with evidence from each source.

Seventh graders “know how to compare and contrast, and they know how to provide evidence,” writes Steinitz. But “unpacking this prompt, let alone accomplishing it,” would feel “impossible” to most as it did for Eva.

Eva missed 10 of 45 multiple-choice questions scoring in the C range. That means most of her classmates would fail.

Steinitz, who earned a PhD in English, has trained and coached high school English teachers. She missed seven of 36 questions on the 11th-grade practice test.

She thinks ninth graders aren’t ready to read a passage from Bleak House and third graders would be stumped by the abstraction in this essay prompt:

Old Mother West Wind and the Sandwitch both try to teach important lessons to characters in the stories. Write an essay that explains how Old Mother West Wind’s and the Sandwitch’s words and actions are important to the plots of the stories. Use what you learned about the characters to support your essay.

Steinitz believes Common Core standards could help bring a rigorous, challenging, engaging curriculum to every classroom. “But the standards won’t succeed if the tests used to assess them are confusing, developmentally inappropriate, and so hard that even good students can’t do well on them.”

Teaching question: Can teachers prepare students to tackle questions like these?

Political question: If the parents of good students see them earning C’s on new tests, will support for Common Core collapse?

Online skimming vs. reading Middlemarch

Skimming online makes “deep reading” more difficult, according to the Washington Post. As adults spend five hours a day on laptops or mobile devices, we’re developing “digital brains.”

“We’re spending so much time touching, pushing, linking, scroll­ing and jumping through text that when we sit down with a novel, your daily habits of jumping, clicking, linking is just ingrained in you,” said Andrew Dillon, a University of Texas professor who studies reading. 

College students can’t read the classics, professors tell Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts cognitive neuroscientist and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

 “They cannot read ‘Middlemarch.’ They cannot read William James or Henry James,” Wolf said. “I can’t tell you how many people have written to me about this phenomenon. The students no longer will or are perhaps incapable of dealing with the convoluted syntax and construction of George Eliot and Henry James.”

. . . “My worry is we will lose the ability to express or read this convoluted prose. Will we become Twitter brains?”

Daniel Willingham, also a cognitive scientist, doesn’t think brains change that easily. Don’t blame the Internet, he writes on Real Clear Education. We Can Still Think and Read Critically, We Just Don’t Want to

A more plausible possibility is that we’re not less capable of reading complex prose, but less willing to put in the work. Our criterion for concluding, “this is boring, this is not paying off,” has been lowered because the Web makes it so easy to find something else to read, watch, or listen to.

“The good news is that our brains are not being deep-fried by the Web; we can still read deeply and think carefully,” he concludes. “The bad news is that we don’t want to.”

Readers don’t understand more when they read for pleasure on paper versus on screen, he writes. Comprehension is the same for textbook reading too, though on-screen reading takes longer.

New SAT vacates ‘obscure’ words

A sneak peek at the new SAT, due in 2016, includes sample questions.

After reading part of a 1974 speech by Rep. Barbara Jordan during the Nixon impeachment hearings, test takers must “describe Jordan’s stance and the main rhetorical effect of a part of the passage,” reports AP.

Another sample question asks test takers to calculate what it would cost an American traveling in India to convert dollars to rupees. Another question requires students to use the findings of a political survey to answer questions.

Instead of “obscure words,” the new test will focus on “high utility” words tested in context, reports the New York Times.

For example, a question based on a passage about an artist who “vacated” from a tradition of landscape painting, asks whether it would be better to substitute the word “evacuated,” “departed” or “retired,” or to leave the sentence unchanged. (The right answer is “departed.”)

The new SAT won’t reward students who memorize vocabulary words, reports Time.

Here is an example of a old-style SAT question that students will not be seeing:

There is no doubt that Larry is a genuine ——- : he excels at telling stories that fascinate his listeners.
(A) braggart
(B) dilettante
(C) pilferer
(D) prevaricator
(E) raconteur

Instead, students will be asked to figure out the meaning of a word from the context:

[. . .] The coming decades will likely see more intense clustering of jobs, innovation, and productivity in a smaller number of bigger cities and city-regions. Some regions could end up bloated beyond the capacity of their infrastructure, while others struggle, their promise stymied by inadequate human or other resources.

As used in line 55, “intense” most nearly means
A) emotional.
B) concentrated.
C) brilliant.
D) determined.

Testing words in context penalizes the studious and helps the privileged, responds Ann Althouse. Working-class achievers can “study lists of difficult vocabulary words and tricks about how to figure out the meaning,” but will find it harder to study words in context. The children of educated, articulate parents learn vocabulary through conversation. “The way words appear in context is, for them, deeply ingrained, easy, and natural.”

She wonders if the goal is “to disadvantage the overachieving, drudge-like student.”

Overachieving drudges as in Asian-Americans?

Reading incomprehension

As a former teacher with a master’s degree, Laurie Levy thought she’d be able to help her seven-year-old granddaughter with her first-grade reading homework, she writes in Reading Incomprehension. But it’s a new Common Core world.

My granddaughter read a non-fiction passage about the moon from her McGraw-Hill reader, Wonders. The homework was a series of reading comprehension questions laid out in boxes labeled “cause” and “effect.” . . . She had to shorten her answers to fit the boxes.

When I tried to see if she truly comprehended the reading about why the moon waxes and wanes and how astronauts landed on the moon, she admonished me. “No, Grandma,” she said. “We just look for a sentence in the book and copy it exactly.”

After reading a fable about How The Bat Got His Wings, her granddaughter divided the story into firstnextthen, and last“Sequencing . . . did not show me that she truly comprehended the story,” writes Levy.

Levy “tried to relate the fable to her life,” but the seven-year-old would have none of it. “What you are saying is not in the story,” the granddaughter said.

Not everything that claims to be Core-aligned really is, but the “in the story” stuff is a Common Core imperative.