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How to close Alaska's literacy gap with other states

Do you recall the old bumper sticker "If you can read this, thank a teacher"? Well, this year you also can thank your kids' teachers for passing a courage test, so to speak. Last spring, Alaska schools understood that their new statewide test scores would disappoint. For years the state's old annual test had said that most kids were proficient for their grade level. In spite of that rosy picture, however, educators knew different. Their students ranked among the worst readers in the country. Consequently, to help their students learn better, the schools recently switched to tougher statewide standards and tests. Sure enough, the 2015 tests now show that most students fall well below the state standards.

What's that sharper picture look like for reading and writing? Recently, the state education department released its preliminary 2015 statewide Alaska measures of progress results. The preliminary 2015 statewide Alaska measures of progress results show that 52,000 public school kids' skills in grades 3 to 10 fall below the English reading and writing proficiency standards. Worse, the lowest of the test's four skill levels characterizes nearly half of third graders and a quarter of 10th graders. Watch for more details coming to your neighborhood soon.

As a reality check, you'll find the state's new results are mirrored in a long-standing, respected national test. The National Assessment of Educational Progress ranks Alaska kids at the bottom for fourth grade reading. Among the 50 states, our fourth graders rank in 49th place in average scores for reading. Students rank higher by eighth grade but not much.

To put us in an even worse light, some 80 percent of other states show improved reading scores over the last decade or two, while Alaska's have lain stagnant. Some states have managed to dramatically raise the reading proficiency of their kids. North Carolina, Maryland and Florida are standout examples. In contrast, Alaska's long-term trend shows no improvement.

Although the new state test clarifies Alaska's literacy gap, the school districts don't have the horsepower to close it. Still helping hold us down and near last place is the loss of teachers. They face shrinking compensation and support. Consequently, they are now hard to get and harder to keep.

To teach poor readers takes lots of repetition and special teaching techniques. If you stacked up all the studies about why Johnny can't read and all the books about how to teach reading, they would reach the top of the chalkboard. They show that in many situations, teaching reading is rocket science.

Good reading instruction is a highly skilled operation. For example, try to teach a dyslexic 8-year old to sound out written words like "cat," let alone determine whether he's dyslexic in the first place. For scale, please realize that as much as 17 percent to 20 percent of the population has dyslexia, a physiological handicap when it comes to "decoding" written words. For them and other poor readers, learning to read is demanding but yields a big payoff.

Alaska kids with reading difficulties, who are most of the estimated 85,000 poor readers in grades K-12, need expert reading teachers who are skilled in applying scientifically developed instruction methods. For many students it takes 90 minutes a day in the school term, plus summer school. After all, once a child falls behind in reading, she is very unlikely to catch up without extra help. However, the good news is that more than 95 percent of children are capable of reading.

In addition, the schools already know how to teach reading. In spite of the bad news about overall low proficiency, the recent state tests show an important bright spot. With their teachers' help, more than half of the worst third-grade readers apparently moved up to a higher skill level by sixth grade. That is, the worst readers as a group improved faster than other students. Credit may go to intensive but limited reading programs like Response to Intervention.

What's a fix for Alaska's reading gap? We suggest that the Legislature consider expanding the most successful reading programs to all 128,000 public school students and think about adapting approaches of successful states. The states that significantly raised their students' literacy rates did it with the outspoken leadership of their governors and legislatures.

Not to sugarcoat things, other states' journeys to greater literacy were not quick or easy. They did not succeed by continuing the same teacher training or the same level of effort in the classroom. Neither did big gains come by way of new fads or school vouchers. Instead, many states arranged for better-trained, expert reading teachers. The most successful states trained those expert teachers in their colleges of education by way of rigorous, advanced programs in reading instruction. They then supported those teachers in the classrooms.

In Alaska as well, you can decide to embark on a voyage to raise reading skills from near the bottom and up into the ranks of the other states. You can put your legislators and the governor at the pointy end of the spear, so they in turn can consider introducing more expert reading teachers and more teaching time into every school. To start, they might focus on the 44,000 students in pre-kindergarten through third grade, particularly those 29,000 youngsters who are already way behind.

Mike Bronson is volunteer education chair of the Anchorage branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Posie Boggs is a dyslexia specialist and represents Literate Nation in Alaska.

Jennifer Jones volunteers with the Alaska branch of the International Dyslexia Association.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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