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School officials seek clues to why reading scores dip in fourth grade at local, state levels
Area educators blame exam for drop in scores
White Sulpher Elementary teacher Mary Katherine Johnson works with fourth-graders Thursday morning on reading comprehension. The 2016 test scores show White Sulphur fourth-graders had significantly lower test scores in reading than scores posted by third-graders.

Across the board, fourth-graders scored lower than third-graders in reading, according to 2016 Milestones results for Hall and Gainesville students.

In Hall, there was a 29 percent difference between third-graders performing at grade level compared to fourth-graders. In Gainesville, that drop was about 16 percent. Statewide, 72 percent of third-graders were reading on grade level and just 58 percent of fourth-graders.

Neither local nor state officials have an explanation. Local officials, however, point to problems with the test, while state officials do not.

Kevin Bales, Hall County’s executive director for school improvement, suggested “your answer rests somewhere within the actual fluctuations in the assessments/scoring.” He added it could be “the test or the scaled scoring or both.”

Betsy Ainsworth, principal at White Sulphur Elementary, noted the fourth-grade scores were the lowest at the elementary level.

“This suggests differences in the Georgia Milestones end-of-grade assessments,” she said.

Sarah Bell, Gainesville’s chief academic officer, said, “As much as we would like to be able to answer these questions, it is difficult to do so with the limited data set that we have with the Milestones. Fluctuations in test difficulty, student populations and teaching staff could all impact scores.”

Bell added, “With the extensive changes that have occurred in recent years with (testing), accountability, and standards, it is extremely difficult to establish cause and effect relationships from one test at this time.”

Finding trends in test results are important for determining changes, she said.

Meghan Frick, communication specialist for the Georgia Department of Education, said scores between 2015 and 2016 can be compared.

“We have confidence the differences seen are real and not a function of the test,” she said. “This is further evidenced by the trend across both years.

“This is something we hope to study in further depth in the future.”

Gainesville and Hall County officials said their schools use consistent and regular assessments to identify students who need additional help or more advanced reading material.


Bell said Gainesville provides “support in particular areas in order to help them catch up before they get too far behind or so that we can provide very targeted support for students who are significantly underperforming.”

Those assessments, Bell said, take only about 10 minutes, and “the information that is provided can be very helpful in identifying student strengths and weaknesses.”

Mary Katherine Johnson, a reading teacher at White Sulphur Elementary School, said students are tested frequently on their reading.

“It’s a huge benefit because we don’t have to stop instruction to get an assessment,” she said.

She said the school has a 45-minute session at the end of every day for all students to focus on reading. In addition, White Sulphur offers remediation and enrichment reading for students in an after-school program.

Johnson said her students have a wide range of reading levels — at least from kindergarten into middle school levels. She said the school provides books to meet all those differences.

On Thursday, four fourth-grade boys found room under a table in her classroom and pulled chairs in close to create a reading cave for themselves. One boy stretched out on his back with a couple of pillows on a seat. A girl nearby did the same on the floor.

Johnson was working on poetry with the students, discussing similarities and differences between poems about cats and dogs.

White Sulphur’s students show the same difference between the two grade levels.

Ainsworth suggested one possible explanation:

“White Sulphur added a phonics/decoding component to our reading instruction at the lower grades (over the past few years). Last year’s third-grade students participated in this additional component of reading instruction during their first and second grade years, while last year’s fourth grade students did not have the same background,” she said.

“I believe the combination of added phonics instruction to the existing readers’ workshop practices resulted in greater reading skills for our third grade group at White Sulphur last year. We hope this upward trend continues,” Ainsworth said.

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