By Stuart Hirsch
The Herald Bulletin
---- — ANDERSON — On a Tuesday afternoon, a dozen or so sixth-grade students at Highland Middle School stare intently at Apple iPads. Some are reading, others tap out their writing exercises.
After a few minutes, English teacher Milissa Crum dims the lights. A short piece about gasoline engines appears on a big screen. She takes a moment to read it aloud.
When Crum finishes, she asks questions and the real lesson of the day begins: figuring out the main idea of a story.
Sometimes that isn't always obvious, she says. Readers have to become detectives searching for clues and supporting information in the text to figure out "the big idea," she tells them.
Off to the side of the classroom quietly observing this exchange is Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz. She came to see a new reading program and clearly is impressed.
Called iLit, the program was developed and launched by giant education company Pearson last year and promises to help struggling readers improve. Highland is the first Indiana school to incorporate the new program into its curriculum.
Guided by a classroom teachers like Crum, iLit offers students personalized learning support based on their individual reading levels.
They choose from thousands of texts based around their interests; practice independent reading, build vocabulary, write informal summaries and essays, read aloud and take part in group discussions about what they've read. Equally important, they can chart their progress.
"Reading programs such as iLit engage the children so that they're doing active reading...actually doing more reading and getting excited about it. That's probably the best piece about this," Ritz said after observing the class.
"This one also has an actual instructional component to it, so it helps the teacher to be able to fully engage the kids and focus on various specific skills that they need to master as well. I noticed that it has great vocabulary building as it goes along, continually increasing vocabulary and I like that the kids can actually see their own improvement, their own levels, their own lexiles (reading measurement) and own their own growth."
Anderson community schools began using the program in August and plans to introduce it to seventh- and eighth-grade students in the 2014-2015 school year, said Ryan Glaze, director of curriculum.
"Pearson talked about students increasing their reading proficiency by two years, and we've had students who have done that and more," he said. "We've been vary pleased."
Currently in Indiana, reading proficiency is only assessed in the third grade when students take the IREAD-3 test. While the test scores of children in Madison County have generally improved over the past several years, reading at grade level remains a stubborn problem, not just here, but throughout Indiana and the nation.
According to new research from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 80 percent of lower-income fourth graders and 66 percent of all kids are not reading proficiently — a key predictor of a student's future educational and economic success. In Indiana, 62 percent of all fourth graders are not reading a grade level.
If that trend continues, the country won't have enough skilled workers for an increasingly competitive global economy by the end of this decade, according to the foundation.
"Of even greater concern is that the gap between students from higher- and lower-income families is growing wider, with 17 percent improvement seen among the former group compared to only 6 percent improvement among their lower-income peers," states the "Early Reading Proficiency in the United States" report.
"It's rather scary when you look at the number of students who are reading on grade level," Glaze said. "It does make us know why our (test) scores are not as good as we'd like them to be."According to Ritz, any assessment is first and foremost a test of reading ability.
"We only collect one data point now, that's in the third grade IREAD (test), and it's pass/fail," Ritz said. "It doesn't tell us where our kids are performing."
Ritz advocates a more comprehensive assessment model and better accountability across all grade levels. Discussions about how to achieve that are getting underway as state education officials prepare to implement new academic standards to replace Common Core, she said.
"Indiana has to get serious about literacy. I'm excited about seeing programs like this that engage children, and where they take ownership for their own reading."
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What's next Based upon the success of the new iLit reading program in the sixth grade, ACS officials plan to incorporate it into the curriculum for seventh- and eighth-grade students beginning in the fall.