Amid All the Good Things Going On in HISD, Why Is It So Many of Our Kids Still Can't Read?

HISD students may be able to pass the test needed to graduate, but that doesn't mean they know how to read.

Click here to see 2012 HISD campus PSAT scores.

One kid is a 17-year-old senior getting ready to go on to college who says he can't read even though he's passed all his state tests. Now in his final year of high school, he's playing a gigantic game of catch-up because suddenly it has hit him that he may not be able to skate by in college.

"I ain't going to lie to you. I can't read at all," says Tony (not his real name). "I hate stories that's real long. I panic on long stories. I'm not going to lie. I never liked reading." To get through the book he had to read for English class, Tony read it aloud to his teacher, who coached him through it.

HOUSTON ISD: END OF COURSE TESTING FOR 2012-13 ACADEMIC YEAR
The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, is the latest state-sanctioned test given to Texas public school students. Passing standards are phased in at a higher level each year; this chart shows how many students would be passing now if future passing standards had already been imposed. — George Scott. Click here to view larger version.
HOUSTON ISD: END OF COURSE TESTING FOR 2012-13 ACADEMIC YEAR The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, is the latest state-sanctioned test given to Texas public school students. Passing standards are phased in at a higher level each year; this chart shows how many students would be passing now if future passing standards had already been imposed. — George Scott. Click here to view larger version.
Former superintendent Billy Reagan says many HISD students are not learning how to read, and he backs up the claim with an analysis of national statistics.
Courtesy of Billy Reagan
Former superintendent Billy Reagan says many HISD students are not learning how to read, and he backs up the claim with an analysis of national statistics.

A female classmate of Tony's says she can't get through the stories she reads in school unless someone explains them to her. She's passed all her state tests, too. How? She says she uses classroom-taught "strategies" on her English reading test and that if she underlines and highlights enough and narrows down her options, she has a better chance of guessing right by playing the odds. She failed her math state test because of the word problems, so she employed her English strategies there on the retry attempt and passed.

"You could tell me to read a book all day; I could read a book all day; I probably don't get it. And five minutes later you tell me to write an essay and I'll be over there struggling to write an essay because I don't understand," she explains carefully.

Another senior who passed every state test handed to him says he doesn't fare as well on his benchmark assessments (practice tests given during the school year). "I never thought I had a reading problem," he says. "I thought I had comprehended it but then when I have the questions, I don't know; I think I'm going to get them right but then I get the results and I'm wrong."

These students are not the exception. They are the rule at many schools in HISD, and as such they appear to be breathtakingly unprepared for either college or the work force.

Their HISD principal (we agreed not to name anyone) says that 80 percent of ninth graders arrive at the high school unable to read on grade level. And yet these same kids passed their state of Texas tests in all the years preceding. Most of these teenagers, this principal says, arrive reading at the fourth- or fifth-grade level.

There were several common refrains from these high schoolers in a series of interviews with the Houston Press: I can read but I don't know what the words mean. I can read but not if the story is long or boring. I forget what I read and the questions at the end don't make any sense to me. I wish we could learn one-on-one. I don't like to be embarrassed in class. I need someone to explain it to me along the way. I'd like to have a tutor. A few said they hope to become engineers, figuring that wouldn't require much reading, just math. All said they intend to go to college.

Houston Independent School District is riding the glory train these days. In 2012, it lined up support for the largest bond issue in its history. Winner of the prestigious Broad Prize in 2013 for urban education for the second time in 11 years, it is frequently cited as a success story with a visionary superintendent — Dr. Terry Grier — who knows how to get things done. Its Apollo 20 program — which has cost at least $56 million so far — was engineered to help students at the lowest-performing schools through intensified instruction. In the past few years, student scores were on the rise for the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) test as it was being phased out to make way for the STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic ­Readiness).

But for the past several years, former HISD superintendent Dr. Billy Reagan has done his own annual assessment of standardized tests in the district — which he sends to whoever is superintendent at the time — and according to his calculations, if you're a minority student in HISD — and most of them are — all these good times are passing you by.

An analysis of 2011-2013 results from the national Stanford Diagnostic Reading Test done by Reagan's consulting company, Unlimited Access Educational Systems Inc., shows HISD reading scores "have declined at most middle and elementary grades when compared to scores reported two years ago...Only 29.6 percent of middle school students and 29 percent of elementary students read at or above grade level." (HISD trustees voted in spring 2011 to stop administering the Stanford at the high-school level.)

Many of these kids don't understand the books they're handed — in fact, they don't even understand the written instructions they're supposed to follow, according to Reagan. "Students with scores below the 50th percentile are very likely struggling to understand the instructional materials they are required to read. Students with scores below the 40th percentile can read almost none of the grade-level materials for their grade."

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28 comments
ConcernedHoustonian
ConcernedHoustonian

Think of the millions in salaries being doled out for all of the higher ups in HISD. Superintendent, Chief High School Officer, Academic Services Chief to the High School and Middle Schools, Chief to the Chief to the Other Chief of Public Relations CEO, on & on. A bunch of people who have ABSOLUTELY NO DIRECT impact on our kids' learning. People who are names on a website; signatures on mass emails. And yet, they are draining taxpayer monies away from hiring and paying teachers who specialize in teaching reading and writing. They could have signing bonuses for reading and literacy specialists, like they do for math and science teachers, and dispatch a large force of these professionals who have been trained to help struggling students to the schools that are lagging behind. Then, these specialists could pull small groups of struggling readers & writers every day to provide them the extra time & strategies they need NOT to pass a test, but to actually read & write for life after high school. The beaucratic bloat in HISD is harmful for kids & teachers alike. What a show of genuine education reform it would be if those at the very top would stop patting themselves on the back for a moment and assess what it is they ACTUALLY do to help real learning occur (reminder: why we have schools in the first place) and do what is right by our kids. Even if that means taking a pay cut to hire one more teacher or reading specialist who will actually have a clear and direct impact on the learning of students, and not just some press release about how they impact student achievement (as written by the PR Chief who earns A LOT more than an actual classroom teacher).

dave_bayouphoto
dave_bayouphoto

45 years of "education reform" and hundreds of billions of dollars invested in public education, and Johnny can't read.
The reason may well be, as suggested by Charlotte Iserbyt and others, because the system is not designed to TEACH Johnny to read. It's designed to create a perpetual "need" for "education reform" and "more money for education," perpetual job security for educational administrators and the marketers and purveyors of education materials.

It's real simple: we've known for more than 45 years what works. Phonics, spelling lists, skills and drills math, memorization of important historical facts and dates. Boring? I'm sure it is for some. But it WORKS.
If we want to return REAL education to Texas schools, we have to rip the outcomes-based methodology out of the curriculum.

Anse
Anse

I happen to be an optimist about our education system, and this is why: I don't think this situation is anything new. The difference is that these kids are handed diplomas, whereas in the past they merely dropped out. The same numbers of Americans are getting a real education, more or less. All the doomsday stuff is primarily due to the fact that we've spent the last 4 or 5 decades making some attempt to educate everybody, rather than a narrow sliver of American society.


I don't know how one overcomes the influences of family and poverty. A teacher gets one hour a day with a kid, five days a week, and with that five hours per week is expected to cast a spell of magic so powerful that a child will ignore the other 23 hours a day--or 17 hours, if you want to count the full school day--in which the overworked, two-job-schlepping single parent is barely around, the ghetto is casting its long shadow through the public housing window blinds, and the television is blaring it's reality-television-garbage for hours every day. And if the single parent is staying home and dependent on public assistance, chances are she isn't spending that time reading to her child.


We want schools to perform an almost impossible task. We tell these teachers that if they don't bring the goods, they'll lose their jobs (a very real possibility in the No Child Left Behind era), then we complain when, in desperation, do whatever they can to get that child to pass the test. 


You will never be a good reader if you don't read. And let's be honest. A lot of the adult voting public who raises such a stink over this situation is not much more literate than these kids. A day spent on internet comment boards ought to tell you that much.

toryu88
toryu88

I am a hiring manager for a high tech company and fully 80% of the resumes I see and the candidates I interview are Asian or Indians with the rest being white. The few blacks I interview are Nigerian and they have a reputation of not wanting to work or staying long in any one position. I hired one and he stayed three months after investing $15K in training in him. That won't happen again.

The future looks bleak for out native born kids and our home grown minorities in particular. They will remain the underclass. As I told my kids, if you don't get an education, you'll be washing some Chinese or Indian's kids Mercedes for a living. I see too many jobs paying $80-90K to start going to recent immigrants who went to school here in the US on a visa and stayed. Nobody talks about these high paying jobs going to foreigners. They talk about offshoring, or outsourcing, but the tragedy in the high paying jobs here.

toryu88
toryu88

I see small armies of kids at bus stops outside apartment buildings. Their families do not pay one cent into the education system. I do in the form of property tax and my kids have been out of school for years. We are educating a lot of illegal kids for free and that reduces the money spent on our own native born kids. I don't pay taxes to educate some Mexican's kids, I would however be willing to pay for bus fare back to the border. Then we can talk about the incompetent administrators who pull down six figures overseeing our crumbling and pathetic school system. I went to school with a lot of would be school administrators. It seems that its a well known secret that the way to big bucks is get a PhD in school administration. It does not matter whether you are smart or not. I broke every curve in the classes I took and I did my work at lunch at my full time job. These principles and administrators working on their MS degrees on the path to a PhD were dunces, absolute zeros...but they knew a principle does not have to be good or do anything they just need that degree. It shows. Recall the president of Texas Southern U Prescilla Slade? She epitomized the kind of person I am talking about.

toryu88
toryu88

Okay, lets break it down demographically. The truth is, most of these kids are minorities. The problem begins a home. I used to go to schools and give science talks. I did it in Austin and it was always the same, classrooms of "at risk" kids, all hispanic, a lot of them with kids at home, working night jobs, and sleeping through class. it was pathetic. These kids are high schoolers and they were doing work on a grade school level. So lets stop ignoring the 300 lb gorilla. We are breeding an underclass. My prediction is that in another generation or two, the blacks and hispanics will still be at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, the number of whites will have decreased but the space at the top that they have relinquished will be filled by East Asians and West Asians(Indians). 

gossamersixteen
gossamersixteen topcommenter

Sub 100 IQ's, the stupidest people breed the most, then we have complete apathy care of the parents, and a total lack of discipline. Then to further that assertion we have schools that only teach rote memorization, they don't learn anything, they learn to pass tests only -- a lot good that does them in the real world. The shame runs down hill from terrible Government funding/choices, to the bad Schools/Administration/Teachers, apathetic ignorant parents, and finally the undisciplined lazy students who don't value an education.

Z.L.
Z.L.

The table showing graduation rates by High School is wrong.  Booker T. Washington should be split between The High School for Engineering Professions and Booker T. Washington.   Although the high schools share the same campus, the curriculum is vastly different.  There is no comparison.

scottsdalebubbe
scottsdalebubbe

In the late 1960's, I taught English for two years in a semi-rural Title I high school in Fresno County, California.  1/3 African American, 1/3 Hispanic (mostly Mexican and Mexican-American), and 1/3 white with probably 50% of whites being poor.  Generally, the Hispanic children "read" well and smoothly aloud but could not say in their own words what they had read (comprehension).  This type of "reading" is "word-calling".  Most of the students could not comprehend what they had read because they had no previous exposure to the subject matter or the context of the information in the reading materials.  They may have been taught to "read" through sounding out and connecting words but they could not hang what they "read" to any previous experience, exposure or information.  They had been taught technique without any meaning or content they could relate to.

"Learning" without having some experience to hang it on is just rote mindlessness and, perhaps, adequate test taking but not developing love of learning (expanding one's comprehension and mastery of the world).  Add that to the prohibitions of subject matter that strip classrooms of information, issues, and diverse opinion that would engage the students' interest, you are left with intellectual sterility, technique without meaning, and faux and frustrating concepts of education.


They also could not write gramatically correct sentences.  This is because children were (are) still being taught prescriptive grammar rather than descriptive grammar.  The latter teaches patterns that can be applied to writing;  the former teaches rules with (for these youngsters and even for myself) arcane descriptions of mistakes.  We know now that our brains (especially children's brains) filter out the "don't" in a sentence and will often "hear" only the words that follow.  If teachers are still diagramming sentences, they are wasting everyone's time because it bears no relationship to being able to write a complete sentence.

Insofar as comprehension of new vocabulary, dictionary definitions tend to be circular and mysterious for these youngsters.  They require concrete examples, pictures, and the flexibility of knowing all the forms a word can take just by adding suffixes and prefixes.  For some reason, nobody taught these children to use the correct form of a word in a sentence, nobody taught English syntax, and nobody taught about context and meaning.  Nobody exposes these youngsters to real life examples of the subject matter in what they read.  No wonder they can't comprehend.  And no wonder they find reading and writing to be meaningless exercises.

larrybradley
larrybradley

I went to an elementary school play last evening. Several words in the playbill were misspelled. Teachers and parents can't read or spell. Parents leave it up to illiterate teachers to teach their children to read. Illiteracy breeds Illiteracy. Society leaves it up to government  to hire the teachers and set the rules. Government is corrupt and populated with the ignorant and incompetent. Connect the dots.

Bonnie.Sheeren
Bonnie.Sheeren

I spend 10 years as an HISD sub teacher.  The teachers all saw this coming, but no one listened.  The only voices being heard were those of "experts" and "education reformers".

I started a Tumblr blog called "HoustonISD Confidential: My Years on the Front Lines of Education Reform".  I wrote an essay called "Confession Time" where I confessed that I could not discern the answers to STAAR prep materials (I don't think like the tests), but that a barely literate student could, using his "strategies".  He passed, which means he can get a high school degree---but I'm almost sure he still can't read---and he was such a great person....he's going to be lost further down the line.

I hope this article wakes people up, but I doubt it.  The money thrown at testing is huge, and that creates inertia which will take years to undo.  We are facing a looming crisis, but this is actually a bipartisan one, with the Democrats and Republicans ganging up on teachers and students to be sure that they never are able to fight this.  Thank you, Margaret Downing, for this article---maybe someone somewhere will read it and do something, but I'm not very hopeful.....

mrcat
mrcat

..."it creates an elaborate hoax to pretend that it has closed that academic equity gap..."

That sums it up.  Thank you, Rod Paige, Thaddeus Lott, and every other person involved in creating or perpetuating this hoax.

jphp
jphp

@toryu88  People who don't own homes pay rent to landlords who, in turn, pay property taxes. Yes, people with larger homes pay more in taxes than the landlord of a tiny 4-plex, but the argument that only homeowners pay into the system doesn't work. 


The average salary for a principal in the Houston area is $97,000. I understand your frustration with administrators, but suggesting they regularly earn over six figures is inaccurate. Other administrators (e.g. superintendents, assistant principals, student dean) make less. 

Anse
Anse

@gossamersixteen "rote memorization"


Have you seen a high school level STAAR English exam? It's pretty challenging. Let me illustrate. With the old TAKS test, a student might have faced an open-ended response question like this:


Explain Joe's [or whatever the character's name was] internal conflict.


With the STAAR exam, the question might be worded this way:


Explain how the protagonist's internal conflict drove the plot of the story.


In the first example, a kid only has to know one concept: internal conflict. In the second example, a kid has to know A) what a protagonist is B) what internal conflict is and C) what "plot" is and D) how internal conflict influences plot. And then they have to know how to articulate that answer in a paragraph of about 10 lines in length, with textual evidence to support their answer.


This is an entirely reasonable expectation of a 10th grader, I think, but it's definitely upping the ante considerably. And these are important concepts for a kid to learn, because they go toward literacy in a more general way. It's literature-based, but it applies to a broader ability to read in other subject areas. 

ghscott2050
ghscott2050

@Z.L.The table is not wrong.  It is taken directly from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.  There are many 'mixed' schools within HISD.  Lamar is another example.  The rates are what they are no matter how HISD chooses to classify or categorize students at the school.

mrcat
mrcat

The story on your link reminds me of a 4th grade Mexican student I had my first year of teaching. She spoke almost no English, but was a whiz at filling out the crossword puzzles I gave out as activities to go with spelling lists. Because she always finished first, I thought maybe she spoke more English than it appeared on the surface. Being very naive at that point, it took a couple of weeks before I realized that she had figured out how to fit the letters of the words from the spelling list into the arrangements of squares on the puzzle without knowing any of the meanings.


The test strategies you describe belong in the same category of skills that can be used to find the "correct" answer, but have nothing to do with comprehension  (except I think my girl was pretty smart to have figured it out on her own).

gossamersixteen
gossamersixteen topcommenter

Well congratulations you're a part of the problem, you knowingly let an illiterate dolt pass. Thanks for your rationalizations though, they really helped him didn't they?

gossamersixteen
gossamersixteen topcommenter

@Anse@gossamersixteenAnd you seriously expect someone who barely speaks much less can read English to do that? How exactly do your educate them to the point where they not only comprehend those questions, understand how to effectively and correctly answer them? You have some predisposed notion that inner city kids are well educated, when quite the opposite is the truth. You have to a basic elementary education first, before they'll ever be able to even comprehend such a question. Excellent rationalizations though.

Z.L.
Z.L.

@ghscott2050 The table is wrong if it doesn't correctly respresent BTW's *true* statistics.  HSEP boosts BTW's stats every single time.  What school resides *in* Lamar HS?  

Bonnie.Sheeren
Bonnie.Sheeren

I have to say, there's something to be said about our kids figuring out how to survive the insanity of these tests. I agree---there's all kinds of intelligence---and coping and staying afloat in these times, is a skill that might help them down the road, especially if the people making the tests are the same ones hiring employees. At least I have to hope so....that something positive comes out of this.

ElizaShue
ElizaShue

@gossamersixteen They probably didn't have a choice. There is pressure from above to "do well" because the state government/public is demanding impossible things from the schools.

Bonnie.Sheeren
Bonnie.Sheeren

I so wish anyone making comments on education had actually taught students. The tests are completely out of control of the teachers. In fact, I have had some really smart kids fail, while struggling students passed? The teachers have been trying to say these tests are problematic, but instead of getting rid f the tests, they just get rid of the teachers. Please don't blame the teachers for any of this.

mrcat
mrcat

@gossamersixteenNo, she did not "let an illiterate dolt pass." The system is constructed to pass anyone who can figure out how to pick the correct answers.

Anse
Anse

@ghscott2050 I would only respond by pointing out that the ration of high-performing to low-performing students at Washington more or less mirrors the American economy in a larger sense. We call it the "1%" and not the "50%" for a reason. Not that I wish to give our economy too much credit for rewarding merit, mind you.

ghscott2050
ghscott2050

@Z.L. @ghscott2050  @Z.L. @ghscott2050 Take your complaint to the Higher Ed Board. Also, the fact of the matter is that HISD could, if it wanted to do so, provide much more precise data on an annual basis showing student progress in colleges throughout Texas at every university and community college in Texas.  For instance, I once paid $1,100 to obtain the virtually complete record of all enrolling freshmen at UT Austin tracking graduation rates, entering SAT scores and dropouts for every public high school in Texas.  It would cost some money to do a more comprehesive report involving all universities at which HISD grads attended but not that much comparable to the money HISD wastes every single day. Since HISD and school districts have uniformly concluded that this would be too much information for parents and taxpayers to have, those of us who try to track this are dependent upon other governments to pull available data.  Your use of the word WRONG is WRONG. Period. The fact that the results are not pretty is absolutely beside the point. At the end of the day, when such data was available, the overall picture would not change. No amount of griping about a table on your part or your apparent wounded ego will change the abundant fact that at Washington and other high schools throughout HISD, the college performance is miserable and that the vast majority of students earn high school degrees are unprepared. For instance, the most recently reported report available on all Washington graduates entering Texas colleges and universities in 2012 shows that 37% of them had a GPA of less than 2.0 and that a total of 57% had a GPA of less than 2.5.  It also shows that 9 Washington graduates out of 49 enrolled in a four-year university had a GPA of 3.0 and 5 students out of 34 students enrolled in a community college had a GPA of 3.0 or over. Translation? There are a few high performing students coming out of Washington and there are more low performing students coming out of Washington.  The vast majority of students graduating from Washington don’t have future academic careers. The brutal truth is that significant percentages are not prepared for a modern workforce.  Perhaps you ought to be more focused on this reality than wishing and hoping that a table would be more to your liking by apparently focusing on those that do well.  Honest quality control analysis does not just focus on the good; it focuses on everything.

 
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