THE STATE SCHOOL board voted last week to send eighth-graders to summer school so they won't have to be "socially promoted" without learning to read, write and compute.
Now that it has taken care of that piece of business, the board should turn its attention to the other end of the academic trail, applying the same zeal to assuring that children master the basic skills -- particularly in reading -- in the early grades.
The fact is that no statewide method exists of assessing beginning reading skills in kindergarten and the first grade so that problems can be spotted and solved before they become "disabilities." Many teachers have no idea how to conduct early reading assessments, let alone how to address the reading or pre-reading deficiencies that such readiness checks can uncover.
These aren't tests used to compare pupils or schools, nor are they tests pupils "pass" or "fail." Ironically, Maryland elementary students are tested nearly to death after the first grade, while many children in the earliest grades aren't screened to determine, for example, whether they have a sense of the sounds of language as a prelude to reading. (Educators call this "phonemic awareness.")
A recent report from the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based consortium that keeps watch on Southern schools, shows that other Southern and border states, notably Virginia and Texas, have jumped ahead of Maryland in assessing reading readiness.
"Research clearly shows that the last half of the kindergarten year and the first half of first grade are the best times to identify reading problems," the report says. "Because of developmental differences among children of comparable ages, reading assessments administered before the last half of kindergarten consistently mislabel children 'at-risk' when they are not.
"It is also clear that if initial reading assessment is delayed beyond the middle of first grade, valuable time is lost, and it is harder to correct difficulties for some children."
Education decisions are more centralized in Southern states than in Maryland, and Dixie legislatures, state superintendents and school boards aren't hesitant about mandates. Screening of kindergartners or first-graders is required in most Southern states.
One of Gov. George W. Bush's reform measures, approved by the Texas Legislature two years ago, calls for the screening of all kindergarten, first- and second-graders. Districts can choose from among several assessments from commercial and nonprofit sources, but the state pays the freight if the district chooses a home-grown instrument, the Texas Primary Reading Inventory.
Texas pays for the extra instruction required for pupils found in need of help. Last summer, the state trained all 17,600 kindergarten teachers in how to administer the assessments and teach phonemic awareness and other pre-reading skills.
Texas' reading inventory was developed by researchers at the University of Texas, just as Virginia's new Phonological Awareness and Literacy Screening (PALS) comes out of the University of Virginia. The commonwealth, like Texas, pays for most of the screening.
"Our assessments aren't done to compare students or schools," Robin Gilchrist, director of reading for the Texas Education Agency, said last week. "They're intended to spot problems as early as possible and do away with the need for social promotion later. They're part of Governor Bush's overall reform strategy."
Maryland's approach to early screening is a decentralized mishmash, although state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick says she wants an assessment "that will be institutionalized in every classroom in the state, not just something that's in this district but not in that one, this classroom, not in that one."
No state requirement exists, but schools in 19 of the 24 districts are using a reading readiness test known as the Work Sampling Program, developed at the University of Michigan, and many teachers across the state screen their pupils for early reading problems in an initiative called the Maryland Model for School Readiness.
How many do it? How many know how to do it? Does your child's teacher do it? Your guesses are as good as anyone's.