Precipitous Drop Seen in Illinois Reading Scores

Published November 1, 1997

Although statewide third-grade reading scores on the Illinois Goals Assessment Program have dropped only slightly over the past five years, scores for other grades have suffered what State Schools Superintendent Joseph A. Spagnolo labels a “precipitous” decline. Spagnolo has proposed a five-year improvement plan that includes a push to bring phonics back into the classroom.

Since 1993, statewide reading scores for Illinois sixth- and eighth-graders have dropped 38 points, or 14 percent, while tenth-grade scores have dropped 42 points, or 17 percent. The plunge in reading scores has overshadowed steady increases in math and science scores over the same period.

“This is not a bleed. This is a hemorrhage,” Spagnolo told Chicago Sun-Times reporter Rosalind Rossi. “We need to do something right away.”

Spagnolo’s proposal, the Illinois Right to Read Initiative, is a five-year plan to raise reading proficiency and reading scores using four key strategies: sharing methods that work, teaching educators how to teach reading, getting parents involved, and finding more money (up to $1 million) for targeted programs.

The goal of the initiative is that within five years, every elementary teacher will be able to teach reading using comprehensive, research-based methods and that local reading initiatives will be established. As a result, Illinois children should be able to read at grade level with fluency and comprehension, perform above national averages on national reading tests, and meet new Learning Standards currently under development.

In 1995, when state reading scores among elementary and high school students declined across-the-board, Spagnolo speculated that the IGAP test itself may have been flawed. But when confronted with a further drop in 1996 reading scores, he blamed teaching methods and urged a return to phonics instead of whole language instruction. (See “Dramatic Drop in Illinois Reading Scores,” School Reform News, January 1997.)

The continuing fall-off in reading scores does not surprise phonics advocate David Ziffer of the Taxpayers’ Alliance for Better Schools. “The consequences of not teaching phonics are far-reaching,” he says.

Those consequences extend well beyond the third grade, and affect the child’s ability to decode words to acquire new knowledge, a critical element of learning beyond the third grade. In later grades, children who use the whole language method suffer even more because they encounter an increasing number of words that they cannot decode, says Ziffer.

This decoding problem is further compounded by the types of books children read. After children learn how to read, what they read is also important. If children aren’t reading non-fiction, they won’t do well on the test, points out Barbara Radner, director of DePaul University’s Center for Urban Education. Reading fiction does not demand as much of the reader as non-fiction, which has a much higher information content and requires different teaching techniques.

“We need kids to seriously read text about topics,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times. “That’s why kids can’t function in high school and they can’t function in college.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].