Why Aren't Arizona Fourth-Graders Learning to Read?

Seventy-two percent of Arizona fourth-graders can’t read proficiently, according to a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation — nearly 10 percent worse than the national average.

Mastering reading by fourth grade is critical because at this age children begin reading to learn other subjects, such as social studies, science, and math, the foundation states. Children who don’t read proficiently by this point in their education are more likely to drop out of high school.

With this in mind, Arizona legislators passed a law in 2010 that prevents third-graders who read far below grade level from moving on to fourth grade. But though the law, which went into effect in 2013, has improved scores among the poorest-performing students, officials at the Arizona Department of Education say it may be negatively affecting other children.

“We’re not asking parents to teach their kids to read. We’re asking them to turn off the television and read with their children, sing, play, and have interactive conversations." — Terri Clark, Read On Arizona

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Public schools have cut the number of children who score in the lowest category of the reading portion of the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) from 4,356 in 2011 to 2,206 in 2014.

At the same time, the number of children in the next category up, those on the cusp of proficiency, has “ballooned” by nearly 1,000 students, says Amy Corriveau, Arizona’s deputy associate superintendent for early childhood education. The number of children who exceeded standards has also dropped.

It’s a symptom of limited resources, Corriveau says. Arizona has cut K-12 funding by nearly 20 percent since 2008. 

“We have been focusing so much on preventing children from being retained that other students haven’t been getting the attention that they need,” she says.

State officials also are concerned that many teachers don’t have proper training on decoding, phonics, and other literacy skills, either because they didn’t receive it in college or their approach is outdated.

“Teaching reading is a pretty complex process,” Corriveau says. “We find not all of our teachers know how to break things down.”

K-12 leaders are working with Arizona universities to tweak curriculum for future teachers, says Charles Tack, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Education. However, the department is not planning to officially make teacher certification requirements more rigorous because of the state’s ongoing teacher shortage.

“We’re having a hard enough time finding teachers as it is,” Tack says.

To “fill the gap” in skills, Corriveau says the Department of Education has started offering a five-day professional development course called “Teaching Reading Effectively.” But, she says, many district and charter schools aren’t participating because they can’t find substitutes to fill in for teachers while they’re away or can’t afford the $60-per-teacher registration fee.

Terri Clark, literacy director for the public-private partnership Read On Arizona, places some of the blame for the state’s reading challenges on a lack of “respect” for the importance of early childhood learning opportunities, such as preschool.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation reports that 67 percent of Arizona children don’t attend preschool, compared to 54 percent nationwide.

“Learning doesn’t start at kindergarten; it starts from birth,” Clark says. “Kids have to come to school with strong foundational skills in language and vocabulary.”

The good news is: It doesn’t take an expert to get kids ready for school.

“We’re not asking parents to teach their kids to read,” she says. “We’re asking them to turn off the television and read with their children, sing, play, and have interactive conversations. These are things anyone can do.”

Despite discouraging reading scores, Clark prefers to remain optimistic.

Budget cuts have forced educators in the public and private sector to pull together to find creative solutions, she says.

“We have a lot of work to do, but we’re headed in the right direction,” she says. “We know what it takes to be successful and we are starting to put those things into place.” 
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Elizabeth Stuart
Contact: Elizabeth Stuart