Major Gains Made in Students' Early Reading Skills

December 2, 2003
The percentage of kindergarten students in the Montgomery County Public Schools who can read a simple story with familiar content and supportive illustrations -- the text-reading benchmark for this grade level -- has nearly doubled in the last three years, increasing from just 39 percent in the 2000-2001 school year to 70 percent last year, according to results released today [Tuesday, December 2] of a longitudinal study by the Office of Shared Accountability.

The greatest gains were made among lower-income children in full-day kindergarten who for the first time last year, surpassed their counterparts in the half-day program offered in more affluent communities. The progress is particularly strong among African American and Hispanic students in full-day kindergarten.

The percentage of African American students reaching the text-reading benchmark in full-day kindergarten last year was 72 percent, compared with 79 percent among white students and 80 percent among Asian American students. Sixty percent of the Hispanic students met this goal, an extraordinary achievement given the high level of limited English proficiency among this group of young children.

The effect of the full-day program is most evident in comparison with the half-day program, where the percentage of African American students reaching the text-reading benchmark was just 53 percent last year and 48 percent of Hispanic students. Performance gains are evident also among special service subgroups, including students participating in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), the Free and Reduced-price Meals System (FARMS), and special education.

“The achievements underscore the profound transformation of the kindergarten program,” said Dr. Jerry D. Weast, superintendent of schools, in a report to the Board of Education. He credited the continued success to kindergarten teachers, support staff, and elementary school principals who underwent extensive training, implemented a greatly strengthened kindergarten curriculum, and used highly diagnostic assessments to identify what students know and are able to do at this young age.

“Teaching a young child to read is one of the most wonderful accomplishments in our school system, and I am particularly grateful to the women and men who teach in our primary grades,” said Dr. Weast.

The gains are not limited to kindergarten. In Grade 2, the percentage of students reaching the benchmark reading level -- including accuracy of reading, oral fluency, and comprehension of the text -- increased from 62 percent two years ago to 68 percent last year. This is an important finding, since some of last year's second graders include the first group of students to receive the improved kindergarten program introduced in the 2000-2001 school year. Their progress highlights the sustained effect of the instruction provided in kindergarten.

Last year, for example, only 6 percent of kindergarten students in the full-day program were at the text-reading benchmark status when school began, with only a slightly higher number (10 percent) of students in the half-day program reading at this level. By the end of the year, the percentage of students at this benchmark in full-day kindergarten increased by 65 percentage points to 71 percent, with a similar increase of 59 percentage points to 69 percent in the half-day program.

The extensive ongoing research project undertaken by the Office of Shared Accountability includes a longitudinal study that examined the impact of the reforms introduced under the Early Success Performance Plan over the past three years.

Both the full-day and half-day components of the kindergarten program clearly have benefited from the early education reforms. However, the initial targeting of full-day kindergarten in schools with the highest level of poverty has had the most evident impact.

The findings confirm earlier reports in this ongoing research initiative, one of the few of its kind in a public school system, and build on a growing body of work that illustrates the cumulative impact of an effort to create a rigorous and unified program of primary education among all elementary schools.

“I believe very strongly that enhanced reading instruction -- with not only greater time and opportunity during a regular school day, but also an extended instructional day and year through after-school and summer activities -- is vital not only in our county but also across the state and nation,” Dr. Weast said.

He noted that an increasing percentage of children at risk because of poverty and limited English proficiency are coming to school without adequate preschool literacy preparation, yet are expected to meet specific skill standards as early as second grade.

“The data demonstrate that we can make progress in addressing the seemingly persistent academic performance gap that lingers in education today by providing students with a better start at the youngest age,” Dr. Weast said. “The importance of expanding the time and opportunity for reading instruction -- coupled with a stronger curriculum, extended time, class size reductions, improved training for teachers, and diagnostic assessments -- provides just the right mix for obtaining the best results.”

Summary of the Major Findings

* The percentage of kindergarten children at or above the text benchmark level increased continuously each year, from 39 percent three years ago to 59 percent in 2001-2002 and to 70 percent last year, 2002-2003.

* Students in the highly-impacted 56 full-day kindergarten programs outperformed their counterparts in the 63 half-day kindergarten programs in more affluent communities in reaching or exceeding the text reading benchmark, 71 percent compared with 69 percent.

* The impact of full-day kindergarten resulted in a surge in the percentage of students reaching the text reading benchmark, rising from a low of 28 percent three years ago, for example, to 71 percent in the group of schools that received the second phase of implementation.

* African American and Hispanic students particularly benefited from full-day kindergarten, with 72 percent of African American students and 60 percent of Hispanic students reaching the text reading benchmark last year compared with 53 percent among African American students and 48 percent among Hispanic students in the half-day program.

* The percentage of students in Grade 2 who are meeting the text reading benchmark has continued to increase, reaching 68 percent last year, with the greatest gains among African American students (from 46 percent two years ago to 57 percent last year) and Hispanic students (from 35 percent two years ago to 47 percent last year).

* Significant gains were identified among students impacted by poverty and limited English proficiency in both kindergarten and Grade 2. For example, in Grade 2 last year, the percentage of students in the ESOL program who reached the text reading benchmark increased by 16 percentage points, compared with 6 percentage points for all other students.

* The achievement gap between African American and white students in Grade 2 continued to exist but narrowed by 5 percentage points in the percentage of students achieving the text reading benchmark (and by 6 percentage points for Hispanic students).

Note: A copy of the superintendent's report and the longitudinal study is available at the first link below. Also available are charts detailing the major findings. Additional information and related reports are available on the website of the Office of Shared Accountability at

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