State education officials in Ohio are looking carefully at teaching practices and demographic differences in more than three dozen elementary schools whose test scores fell after receiving grants to improve phonics instruction.
According to results made public last month, scores for 17 of the 38 schools participating in a state demonstration project declined, some dramatically, between 1997 and 1998 despite an increased focus on phonics. Although the performance of 17 other schools in the project improved, just one of the schools met the state requirement that 75 percent of 4th graders at each school demonstrate proficiency on the reading test. Results for four other schools were unavailable.
“We are now doing a more in-depth study ... trying to figure out why the programs did not appear to be successful,” said Nicole C. Luthy, a reading and language arts consultant for the Ohio education department.
Ms. Luthy said there are tremendous socioeconomic and racial differences among the school districts involved in the first phase of the project, in which the state legislature provides grants of up to $15,000 each for materials and teacher training to make systematic phonics an integral part of K-3 reading programs.
The 1996 legislation that created the project followed a trend in more than a dozen states toward targeting funding to expand phonics instruction, an approach in which students are drilled in letters and sounds in the early stages of learning to read.
The movement took its cue from research suggesting that children at risk of reading failure should first learn phonics. (“Research Targets Reading Patterns Among Learning-Disabled Pupils,” April 29, 1998.)
Ohio officials said that phonics was meant to be only one part of a comprehensive program. “If schools are using intensive, systematic phonics as the [main part] of their reading program, " Ms. Luthy said, “it is highly unlikely they would show success in their test scores.”
More Time Needed
At six of the schools, fewer than one in four of the students taking the Ohio Proficiency Tests could show reading proficiency. At Scioto Elementary School, in a rural district south of Columbus, just 22.2 percent of students were proficient on the test in 1998, compared with more than 46 percent a year earlier.
Principal Don Jenkins said he anticipated such bad news because the class taking the 1998 test had a much higher proportion of low-functioning students than in other years. He said the program needs more time to make a significant impact. “We are trying to bring those test scores up, and we feel that phonics will help us do that.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Reading Scores Fall in Some Schools Awarded Grants To Emphasize Phonics