OPINION: Hamilton County's 3rd-grade reading scores languishing in the tank

Nov. 20—"To a child who doesn't read," the nearly 50-year-old public service television advertisement intoned, "the world is a closed book. Drifting, dropping back, dropping out. Once you start a child reading, there's no stopping them. If America is to grow up thinking, reading is fundamental."

The commercials were made on behalf of a now 55-year-old organization called Reading Is Fundamental, the country's largest children's literacy nonprofit whose goal is to ensure that children have the ability to read and succeed.

As a country, as a state and as a county, though, we're not making the reading progress we should. In some ways, we're probably going backward.

The reading proficiency scores for Hamilton County third-grade students were released recently, and what they revealed flies in the face of some of the hoopla the school district trumpeted earlier this fall with its announcement of schools that increased achievement, schools that met or exceeded growth standards and teachers whose classes met or exceeded growth standards.

"The district [now] is in a completely different place," Dr. Nakia Towns, interim schools superintendent, said at the time.

But the the third-grade reading scores reveal how far there is to go.

Of the 43 elementary programs listed, in only 11 (Apison, Normal Park, Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, Lookout Mountain, Nolan, Ooltewah, Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, Soddy, Thrasher, Wallace A. Smith and Westview) were 50% of students reading at or above proficiency level. So, in 32 of the 43 schools, less than half the students were at or above where they should be in reading.

In six elementaries (Tommie F. Brown Academy, Calvin Donaldson, East Lake, Hardy, Orchard Knob and Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence), less than 10% of students were reading at or above the proficiency level. Less than 10%. In two of those schools, Hardy and Orchard Knob, less than 5% of students were reading at proficiency level. Less than 5%.

Let those percentages sink in.

We won't bother to cite the studies that say how vital it is that third-graders read on grade level. You've seen them in this space before, on these editorial pages before and in the education stories this and many other newspapers have published.

The bottom line, all the studies tell us, is that if students aren't reading on grade level by the end of third grade, it's hard to ever get them there, and many never get there, despite receiving social promotions toward graduation. That, of course, results in an inability to comprehend subject matter in all their classes, a lack of interest in school in general and, potentially, a less than stellar future as an adult.

The usual suspects would say that most of the district schools with the higher scores are magnets, largely white or in wealthier communities, and they'd be right. So, they would say, the other schools just need more money. That's the only difference between them and us.

Not so fast.

Three (Brown Academy, Calvin Donaldson, Orchard Knob) of the six schools with the worst reading scores had among the district's highest per-pupil expenditure in grades K-3, the grades where reading is foundational. And the other three were nowhere near the bottom in per-pupil spending.

Of the 11 schools with 50% or more of their students reading at or above grade level, almost all were in the bottom tier of per-pupil spending in grades K-3.

So strike lack of money as the culprit.

We also don't swallow the frequent complaints that the lowest-performing schools have the worst teachers. Do many teachers seek to teach in schools where students will be attentive, discipline won't be a problem and parents will be supportive? Of course. But many dedicated and excellent teachers ply their trade in lower-performing schools because they know that's where their expertise can make the most difference.

Cross out teachers as the problems.

That brings us to where we've always known the problem is — in the home. Children in grades K-3 whose parents are elsewhere, whose parents' minds are elsewhere and who aren't shown the importance of reading from an early age and on into school are the bulk of students who are not reading on grade level.

It's that simple, but it's not that simple. Often, in between a parent and that parent helping a student with reading are second and third jobs, violence, drug abuse and plain lack of interest.

If some of those barriers can be lifted, more time to help a child with reading might be realized.

Since our taxpayer money is supporting these schools, this lack of literacy also becomes our problem. Because if fewer and fewer students can read, they also can't take the family wage jobs companies will be offering them some day. And the fewer of those jobs they can take, the more they'll need minimum-wage jobs or government dependency.

So, while its important to applaud academic improvement and growth, the district must refine its reading outreach to students — and parents of students — in grades K-3.

Reading — it's still fundamental.