Students who can't read at grade level are majority at mostly black schools

by Tom Grubisich

A majority of classroom seats in predominantly black schools in Charleston County are occupied by students who can't read at grade level. If the system keeps failing these students., they're likely to pay a heavy price later in their job careers, including what they earn.

The Charleston school district calls reading one of its "Top Five Priorities." The district has consistently maintained it was making progress developing a "world-class" system in improving its reading instruction and offering special help to its most struggling readers. A team of CCSD reading specialists gave a  conference report in 2014 headed "Reading Recovery Is Alive and Well in Charleston County Schools."

As recently as January 2015, the system delivered an upbeat report to the school board on progress it said it was making in an array of reading programs, including work with at-risk readers. But within months of that report, the facade of success began to crumble when tougher new state tests given to students in grades 3 through 8 in the spring of 2015 showed that reading instruction and remedial help were falling far short of targets.

The big gap between what the system was reporting - based on low state norming of performance standards - and what was actually happening is shown in this chart produced by Beyond Catfish Row:


Analysis by Beyond Catfish Row reveals the school-by-school failure in Reading,  with mostly black schools being hit the hardest. The bleak performances can be seen in this chart for the school district's elementary level and this one for the middle level.

The numbers in those charts align with what new Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait, in a Feb. 22 report, called the "brutal facts" about the county system's failures in Reading and other subjects. Postlewait said "public education in our region, state and nation [is] failing to serve Black, Hispanic and lower-income children" and proposed 16 new or expanded efforts to end the disparities.

Beyond Catfish Row research shows that there are far more readers below grade level at predominantly black schools than mostly white ones. This chart shows the wide gap:


The extent of racial disparities in reading performance in predominantly white and black elementary schools is shown in this school-by-school scatter-plot chart produced by Ted Legasey, Chairman of Charleston Promise Neighborhood, which serves The Neck's low-income communities, with this author, Tom Grubisich.

The extensive shortcomings in reading performance is not only hurting mostly black students who number in the thousands but depriving the Charleston region of the additional human capital it needs to be more competitive in creating higher-level jobs to serve a global economy. Postlewait makes this point in her Feb. 22 report. Beyond Catfish Row reported on this dimension of the problem in January.

The national predicament is detailed in this new report by Amy Liu, Director of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program in Washington, DC. Liu says:: "A large body of research shows that persistent intra-regional disparities, racial and economic segregation, and low-density sprawl can drag down a region’s overall economic potential and widen inequality." While Liu does not cite Charleston, this region has many of the racial and economic disparities that she says impede success in economic development at the city and regional levels.

There is broad agreement by educational researchers that reading underpins all learning, from the earliest pre-K years through all grades in elementary, middle and high schools. CCSD says in its "Vision 2016" goals statement:

"Literacy is the foundation of all learning

"A student's ability to read, write, speak and think critically is critical to the development of other skills - and to providing a foundation for success in the 20th Century. We will ensure all students have a strong foundation of literacy skills by the time they leave 3rd grade and our overall approach to learning - across all subjects and grades - will emphasize and reinforce literacy."

Some new research into reading maintains that it is not a "natural" process. Australian literacy researcher Lorraine Hammond, a critics of popular programs like Reading Recovery - which is part of the Charleston system's literacy programs - wrote last year:

"Mainstream early literacy teaching and Reading Recovery are both still grounded in the idea that reading is a natural process, and that children learn merely via exposure to print. However, we now know that is not the case. Reading is a complex, learnt skill."

Reading Partners, which uses community volunteers to work with students, is one of the Charleston school system's programs.

Reading Partners, which uses community volunteers to work with students, is one of the Charleston school system's programs.

In her Feb. 22 report, CCSD Superintendent Postlewait did not go into detail about which reading programs would be emphasized in raising the thousands of students who are below level, in many cases the at-risk level.

What will be key to any new programs will be adequate monitoring to make sure that what's being taught in the classroom and in the "Reading Academies" for at-risk students is producing evidence-based results. Effective monitoring begins with periodic assessments that are normed to national test performances, not South Carolina's historically lower standards.

The 2015 ACT Aspire assessment proved to be an eye opener because it was nationally normed against performances at schools in states around the country. The state is now in the process of replacing ACT Aspire with a new assessment called SC Ready. Under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act - which replaced No Child Left Behind legislation -  South Carolina and other states have more freedom in how they can calibrate what constitutes successful student performance in assessment testing.

Postlewait said in her report that real progress in reading needs monitoring based on national norming of performance standards. So does Melanie Barton, Executive Director of the state Education Oversight Committee. But exactly how rigorous the new SC Ready assessment system proves to be will depend on give and take involving a variety of local and state education stakeholders in coming months. Whatever consensus is reached haa to be accepted by Barton's EOC.

What those stakeholders decide on may be crucial to whether thousands of below-level readers in the Charleston system - most of them black - receive the instruction they need to be ready to advance into fulfilling careers and jobs.