Brows furrowed, the high school juniors and seniors slump over their desks, three sheets of stapled paper in hand.
They sit up one by one to read out loud — most fluidly, a few haltingly — and look up, fidgeting.
It’s like reading a paragraph or two, then realizing they digested nothing of the passage in front them, they say.
We can read, insist the teenagers in Sandy Duttko’s “intensive” reading class at Estero High School.
They just can’t get a passing grade on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
As FCAT scores continue to decline in the secondary grades, lawmakers have responded by requiring intensive reading classes for middle and high school students. The most recent results — showing less than half of ninth and tenth graders are reading on grade level — lead some to wonder: Are these kids illiterate?
Absolutely not, say educators in Lee County.
On the heels of the release of the tenth grade FCAT test last week by the Florida Department of Education, Lee Superintendent James Browder said people in the community should read through the test to get a sense for how difficult it is.
“I can assure everybody that they will be absolutely amazed at how difficult these tests are. And I think there will be a new level of respect for the students that have to go through that process,” Browder said.
Still, more than 60 percent of Lee County’s tenth graders and about half its juniors and freshmen are in the intensive reading classes, in addition to the seniors who still need to pass. They are there because their scores on the controversial FCAT are low enough to warrant automatic placement in the extra reading courses that are changing the shape of high schools in Lee County. It’s all part of a state law that this year makes an extra reading class mandatory for students who score at the lowest two of five levels on the test.
At Estero one morning, Duttko sparred with the teenagers in a lively debate about the minimum wage, a high-interest topic since nearly every student in the room has a job. Students there said passages on the actual test are irrelevant and boring.
“Last year they had (a passage) about golf balls. That was so boring. I couldn’t focus,” said Bryan Chambers, 17. “If you did something about minimum wage, more students would pay attention to it.”
District and state administrators say some high school students can’t read well enough to deserve a diploma. With scores on the state-wide standardized test at an all-time low for tenth grade, intensive reading classes are omnipresent at high schools throughout the state this year. That’s a good thing, said Cindy Jenkins-Fones, a reading teacher at Estero.
“I always knew as a language arts teacher, these kids aren’t getting it,” she said.
Whatever the reason why, one thing is clear: The test results don’t look good for secondary students. Only 30 percent of Lee County’s tenth graders scored at or above grade level on the 2005 reading test — in other words, at a Level 3, 4 or 5. With the passing score falling in the high Level 2 range, 51 percent actually passed the test.
The classes are geared to address a problem educators call troubling: While elementary school children in Lee and statewide have steadily and significantly bettered their scores in both reading and math since 2001, scores for secondary students have largely stayed the same or even declined.
“Reading, that’s the only place that I say we are in real serious — in a serious situation and we’ve got to turn that trend in a positive direction. And we have not done that yet,” said Lee Superintendent James Browder.
In Lee County, the percentage of high school sophomores reading at or above grade level in reading has declined from 39 percent in 2001 to 30 percent in 2005. At Estero High School, it fell from 40 percent to 27 percent over those five years.
Gloria Pipkin, founder and president of the Florida Coalition for Assessment Reform, attributes the decline to FCAT burnout.
“I think that the reason the FCAT appears to be successful in the primary grades is that younger children are just more responsive to authority,” she said.
By middle and high school, kids are sick of the drill, she said. FCAT advocates against the high-stakes of the test: Students who fail the third grade test can be held back; high schoolers must pass the tenth grade test to get a diploma.
Pipkin said teachers have to engage students in reading things that motivate them, not merely prepare them for the test.
“If you give (a student) a car manual, that may be dry but he really wants to fix his car and can read it with no problem,” she said.
Passages on the test released last week included non-fiction passages about women who shaped the Constitution and the history of baseball, a fictional story entitled “After You’ve Stood on the Log at the Center of the Universe, What Is There Left to Do?” and a poem about tarantulas.
Pipkin advocated bringing magazines and newspapers into class to help get students more enthusiastic about reading.
“Once you get them hooked and provide a wide variety of materials that actually are engaging, it works,” she said. “So often, we do just the opposite and make reading as painful as possible.”
Painful is the way Anne Bryan, 15, describes reading. The tenth grader is sick of reading, sick of FCAT, sick of the drills she does in her intensive reading class.
“I hate doing it all over again, doing the same things,” she said. “The reading part, they give you stories you don’t care about.”
She said the passages should focus on topics kids care about. Her suggestions? Current events, cell phones, animals and sports.
Students also say the intense focus schools now place on the FCAT — how students perform can net a school extra funding or unwanted negative attention — make test-day anxiety worse.
“I think the classes are helping, but ... if there wasn’t so much focus, then it wouldn’t be so nerve-wracking,” Bryan Chambers said.
Most education experts, however, say something has to be done about the high school format, which has gone largely unchanged in the last 50 years. High school reform is now on everyone’s agenda; efforts to look at why high schools aren’t working are now under way from the desks of both President George W. Bush and Lee Superintendent Browder. But it wasn’t always the case.
“There hasn’t been reading support at the high school level or any big initiatives at the high school level,” said Kristin Bueno, assistant principal at Estero High.
She said the students in the intensive reading classes will benefit from the extra help.
“They’re there because they’re not mastering the skills that are on the FCAT and the Sunshine State Standards,” Bueno said. “The way high school worked in the past isn’t the way high school works now. I knew students my age that graduated from high school that can’t read. Now, not only do they have to read, but they have to analyze.”