HISD Stalls in Reading on Nation's Report Card, Sees Math Gains

In another indicator that the Houston ISD hasn't mastered the art of teaching reading, today's release of scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that while there are some gains in fourth and eighth grade math, average HISD reading scores have not improved since 2007 and, in fact, are below both the state and national average for public schools in large cities.

As we wrote about in last week's cover story, literacy remains a significantly stubborn problem in HISD according to national test scores. This comes despite the state's own reading and writing testing scores which tend to be higher than the nationally standardized tests such as the PSAT or the Stanford.

The district's latest chief academic officer, Dan Gohl, said that literacy is a big concern for the district, adding that one problem may be that there is a wide range of reading programs in the district as compared to the math ones. He insisted that there would be no top-down decree from the administration building but that he would be submitting a proposal to the school board in January calling for a revision to the current reading program.

"We are pleased we continue to perform at high levels in mathematics and are concerned about the flat line trending of our literacy rates particularly when we examine the country as a whole and how our peer districts continue to grow," Gohl said. " We are looking into what our successes are and what are the challenges we face. One of the big differences is the range of programs we have in literacy and the fairly small range of programs we have in math. And the local control in our schools in determining what academic approaches they take may be leading to more programmatic confusion for our students in literacy. And so coherence is going to be a question we're examining in all academic programs.

"What we are looking at is the community of schools -- the principals, the school advisory councils -- be responsible to each other to ensure that when a student moves from one elementary school to another, they're not having to go to a completely different philosophical approach of how to learn to read.

"We cannot allow people to independently choose what literacy program they have without acknowledging that it must adhere to a community standard," Gohl said.

All students in HISD did not take a NAEP test. Instead, NAEP administrators chose students at certain campuses to take the test. No student takes all of the test, just two 25-minute parts of it and other than say steering NAEP away from an alternative campus, HISD has no say in who is chosen, according to Research and Accountability Assistant Superintendent Carla Stevens.

Called the Nation's Report Card, the NAEP test also breaks its results into a segment on how the largest urban districts across the country perform in comparison to each other. One important difference in the fourth grade reading test, Stevens noted, is that while the state allows fourth graders to test in Spanish, NAEP does not. At the same time, she said, HISD's exclusion rate has dropped from 14 percent to 6 percent meaning more students who are limited English speakers are taking the NAEP test in reading.

Gohl said the NAEP is one of many "lenses" HISD uses to look at the academic progress of its children. "It is an important but not holistic approach to understanding our achievement."   In Grade 4 reading HISD students overall average 208, which is below the large city score of 212 and the national average of 221. While white students in grade 4 scored slightly above the national average, black and Hispanic students were below it. The gap between English-speakers and limited English learners was 22 percentage points, an increase over the 2011 scores. Eighth grade results mirrored those in fourth; white students in HISD were ahead of the national average, blacks and Hispanics were lower.

And the gap between English and limited-English speakers was 35 percentage points.

Math offered happier if not joyous news. By breaking the students down into ethnic groups and a free/reduced price lunch group, HISD was able to show its students demonstrated higher average scores than similar student groups in other school districts across the country.

And as Gohl repeatedly pointed out, HISD is one of the most diverse school districts in the country which means it has a different mix than many other more homogeneous school districts.

For instance: In the Grade 4 Math test where 80 percent of HISD students met the basic level of achievement, Houston came in with an average scale score of 236 (out of a possible 500) which was just above the national average for large city schools of 235. It was below the national overall average of 241. HISD's black students scored 227 compared to 224 among blacks nationally. Hispanics in HISD scored 235 compared to 230 among Hispanics nationally. White students in HISD average 261 while the national average among whites was 250.

What also bears looking at is the change in scores over time. In the ten years since 2003, HISD's Grade 4 math scores have risen from 227 to 236, an 11 percentage point gain. In that same time, blacks have risen from 221 to 227 in ten years and Hispanics from 226 to 235.

There doesn't seem to be a lot of progress in closing the equity gap between non-English speakers and English speakers on the fourth grade math test. The gap was 9 percentage points in 2003, ten years later it's 11 percentage points. Still, HISD's number are much better than nationall wheter the gap has increased over ten years to 25 percentage points.

In the eighth grade results Houston was below the national public average but above the large city average scores. The gap there between the district's English speakers and limited English speakers was 26 percentage poins, down from a high of 36 percentage points in 2007 but about the same as it was in 2003. It compared favorably, though, with a national gap of 40 percentage points.

The final part of the HISD report addressed levels of achievement by students. For instance, while 52 percent of fourth grad readers met the basic standard of 208 out of 500, 19 percent reached the "proficient" level of 238. In eighth grade reading while 63 percent of students met the "basic" standard of 243, 18 percent met the proficient level of 281.

In math, 32 percent of HISD fourth graders reached proficiency and 28 percent of HISD eighth graders.

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