How Arlington Co. schools is addressing an increase in 5th graders needing intensive reading support

There were more fifth graders in Arlington Public Schools who needed intensive reading support at the end of the last school year than at the beginning, according to county data, a troubling trend that the Virginia school district says it’s urgently working to address.

Based on student results on the assessment known as DIBELS — Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills — 17.1% of fifth graders needed intensive support at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year. By the end of the year, 21.2% of fifth graders needed intensive support.

DIBELS includes a series of short “fluency measures” that can monitor progress of reading skills in kindergarten through eighth graders. Result ranges include intensive support, strategic support, core support and core^ support.

In a letter to school system leadership last month, the group Arlington Parents for Education said that while there’s an increase in the percentage of students scoring in the proficient category, the fifth grade class had an increasing number of students needing extra help. Those fifth graders, the group said, were among the last to be taught to read using balance literacy instruction in first and second grades, and were in third grade during the pandemic.

Arlington Public Schools has now started using an approach known as the Science of Reading, which emphasizes phonics in literacy instruction. That is a positive development, the group said, given improvements in literacy data for kindergarten through third grade.

But the potential consequences for students entering middle school lagging behind in reading skills are significant. By middle school, students are expected to read to learn rather than learn to read.

“They started rolling out the Science of Reading in first, second, third grade, and later then in fourth and fifth grade,” said Reg Goeke with APE. “Part of the problem is just that there’s a cohort of students who didn’t get it.”

In response to the group’s concerns, the school system said some students are “experiencing the afterburn of the balanced literacy practices that were in operation in APS for many years prior to the marked shift to structured literacy.”

It also said it’s training teachers and administrators in the Science of Reading and using a new reading screener and diagnostic tests for middle and high school kids.

“As we know from the simple view of reading, students need to be strong in both word recognition and language comprehension to achieve proficiency in reading comprehension,” the school system wrote.

For some of the county’s most vulnerable students, the stakes are high.

Parent Reade Bush said his son is autistic and about to start middle school. The county has a middle school that offers support for autistic students, but his son doesn’t qualify to attend the school, because he’s behind in reading.

“He is struggling with phonics, and is still needing to learn the basics of decoding, which is breaking down words into their phonics,” Bush said. ” … These fifth graders are now passing off to middle school and sixth grade, and in sixth grade, you’re expected to be able to read independently. These kids are not able to read independently at the sixth grade level.”

Bush also said there are issues with the way the county approaches reading instruction. For one, he said, his son was in a reading group with five other students, and some of the students within the reading group may have different struggles.

Bush also said he has requested compensatory services for his son but has been denied.

In its letter to APE, the school system said parents who think their child with an individualized education plan should be receiving compensatory services should contact their school principal and ask for an IEP meeting.

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Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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