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Dallas ISD finds bright spots in national test but lots of work left to do

Dallas Morning News
December 18, 2013

By Holly K. Hacker

Dallas ISD has made promising gains in reading but still has lots of room for academic improvement, according to national test results released Wednesday.

The district’s eighth-grade reading scores rose from 2011 to 2013. Scores on three other tests — fourth-grade reading, fourth-grade math and eighth-grade math — stayed flat.

While the eighth-grade reading gains are noteworthy, students still need help. Only 15 percent of DISD’s eighth-graders are considered proficient. That means, for instance, that they can describe an author’s tone in an essay. Or understand what the author implies.

Superintendent Mike Miles said that yes, the district still has much work to do. But he saw encouraging results, especially among students who are Hispanic, low-income or learning English.

“The scores show that we’re moving in the right direction,” Miles said. “You could say that we moved the ball down the field.”

DISD was one of 21 large urban school districts to get scores this spring in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The testing program lets big-city districts see how they stack up against each other, their state and the nation.

A sample of fourth-graders and eighth-graders take the test every other year. DISD started participating in 2011, so this is the first time the district can track its progress.

For those used to Texas exams like STAAR or TAKS, the national test results can be a jarring disappointment. Take this year’s STAAR results for Dallas ISD: 62 percent of fourth-graders passed the reading test. Yet only 16 percent of fourth-graders who took the national reading exam were deemed proficient.

The national exam sets a higher bar for passing. And it makes students write out some answers. Take this sample question: “Describe a strength and a weakness in the way the author presents the information in the article. Support your answer with examples from the article.”

The old TAKS tests were almost exclusively a multiple-choice affair. The new STAAR tests include short written answers and essays. That’s more in line with what the national exams demand of students.

The national test also revealed a troubling statistic in Dallas ISD: Fourth-graders don’t read nearly as much in school as their peers in other big cities.

Of those surveyed, 33 percent of DISD fourth-graders said they read more than 15 pages a day in school or for homework. Nationally, 48 percent of fourth-graders say they read that much.

Some teachers might think a textbook is too hard, so they don’t assign it. That’s the wrong approach, said Patricia Mathes, a Southern Methodist University researcher who studies ways to help struggling readers.

“We should care about that, because the more kids read, the better readers they become,” Mathes said.

Help can come from outside the classroom, DISD officials say. Trustee Dan Micciche said he wants to see all elementary schools offer volunteer tutoring programs.

“We want to help get kids up to grade level in reading by the time they leave elementary school,” he said.

One program already in some DISD elementary schools, called Reading Partners, pairs students who’ve fallen behind with tutors. They meet twice a week, with the goal of building confident young readers.

Dallas ISD faces an extra obstacle: Compared with most big-city districts, DISD has far more students who are learning English. They tend to score lower than native English speakers do.

There are ways DISD can turn that challenge into a strength, Mathes said.

“Spanish is actually a great tool for learning vocabulary in English,” she said. A teacher might show students how the Spanish word for hand, mano, relates to English words like “manual” or “manipulate.”

Overall, Wednesday’s results showed that big-city school systems are improving faster than the nation as a whole, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

“While we still have a lot of work to do to close achievement gaps in our largest cities, this progress is encouraging,” Duncan said in a statement.

Of the 21 big districts, only Washington, D.C., made significant progress on all four tests from 2011 to 2013. Los Angeles made gains on three of the four tests. Only two cities had drops — Houston in fourth-grade reading, and Detroit in eighth-grade math.