Dramatic Drop in Illinois Reading Scores

Published January 1, 1997

When confronted with an across-the-board decline in state reading scores among elementary and high school students in 1995, Illinois School Superintendent Joseph A. Spagnolo speculated that some questions on the Illinois Goal Assessment Program’s test were flawed.

A year later, when confronted with a further drop in the 1996 reading scores to the worst level since IGAP testing began in 1988, Spagnolo blamed teaching methods. Scores fell dramatically, not only in Chicago schools but also in many suburban schools. “The reading problem is all over the state, not just in Chicago,” said Spagnolo.

In the 1995 test, reading scores of third-graders dropped eight points, and sixth-graders’ scores dropped three points. The decline in reading scores for eighth-graders and tenth-graders was just as startling–14 and 7 respectively. At the time, Spagnolo speculated that “wild aberrations” like these were related to the test and not to student ability.

In the 1996 test, the results of which were reported the week of November 11, reading scores of third-graders increased 2 points over 1995 scores. Reading scores in all other grades dropped again compared to 1995 scores–another 12 points for sixth-graders, 8 points for eighth-graders, and 14 points for tenth-graders. The total decline in reading scores since tests were first administered in 1993 for grades three, six, eight, and ten are 5, 19, 27, and 27 respectively.

This time, Spagnolo laid the blame on teaching methods and urged a return to phonics instead of whole-language instruction. Casey Banas, education reporter for the Chicago Tribune, reported that “Spagnolo said during a two-day reading summit in Deerfield that for the earliest readers, teachers should return to the time-tested process of learning letters and sounds one at a time, a method known as phonics.”

Some suburban district officials agreed with Spagnolo. Township High School District 214 in northwest Cook County saw a dramatic drop in its reading scores. Three years ago, 92 percent of its students met or exceeded state goals for reading. This year, only 80 percent reached that level. District officials lay the blame for the poor performance on new instructional methods chosen a decade ago by independent elementary feeder districts, over which the high schools have no control.