Holyoke Schools Literacy Scores Called ‘Alarming’

HOLYOKE – Holyoke Public Schools has released the latest literacy data for K-12 students and the results have been described as “alarming”.

The data showed that most students were not meeting educational milestones.

Half or more of students in grades 1 to 10 have difficulty reading, falling into the ‘Intervention’ or ‘Urgent Intervention’ category. Only kindergarten readers showed improvement in middle years assessment.

The district released the information at Monday’s school committee meeting.

Fifty-three percent of Grade 1 readers landed in urgent intervention, followed by 14% in intervention and 33% in equal or higher referral level. Data for the remaining grades fluctuated between a high of 48-66% urgent intervention, 13-27% intervention, and 21-33% superior reference.

Valerie Annear, director of education for the district, said the district uses STAR to accurately assess students’ early literacy (PreK – Grade 1), reading and math skills. Additionally, the STAR system can “accurately measure each student’s unique level of achievement.”

As students answer questions, the STAR program adapts to the needs of the child, one way to determine a learning base. Students are tested three times a year and take 20-25 minutes. Annear added that the tests are not comprehensive but are a universal screening tool.

If the student cannot master the grade standards, the program adjusts to lower the level of difficulty, Annear said. The reverse happens if a child exceeds expectations, with the questions becoming more difficult.

Annear called the latest results “alarming”, although four-year results indicated that 70-80% of students were in the “red” or urgent intervention for English language arts. The pandemic has not improved the situation.

Nationally, K-2 students need high-level literacy support. Sixty-six percent of Holyoke sophomores need urgent intervention. Annear warned that falling grade 2 literacy skills were a national phenomenon. Second graders are introduced to a formal classroom model for the first time.

STAR tests are given in English and Spanish for Mathematics and English Language Arts. Educators can view easy-to-understand charts that help plan instruction and small group interventions.

The readily available data allows teachers to “measure student growth and modify plans to meet changing student needs.” Students in bilingual programs are assessed in English and Spanish.

School committee member Erin Brunelle said COVID-19 lockdowns were forcing children to rely on remote learning, where they stared at computer screens all day. She said students need to re-engage and reduce screen time.

“We are back in school. The teacher’s job is to teach. Children need to be in groups and interact,” Brunelle said. She added that HPS are “hyper focused” on math and English and emotional and social needs. “They need to be happy in school in order to engage in the classroom to learn.”

Annear said that while laptops are part of classroom instruction, they aren’t used all day. She called for more interaction between students to develop communication and comprehension skills.

Annear noted that students in a bilingual class worked on whiteboards to learn the Spanish alphabet and spell words. She said such a hands-on approach proves beneficial in other subjects like math.

“We want to make sure these types of opportunities happen. We have to keep improving,” Annear said. Staff and teachers undergo regular professional training.

While the latest data is “heartbreaking,” the district must work within the system already in place to ensure success and meet the needs of children, Annear said. A 13% gap exists between second and third grade reading levels.

Students must also have access to art, music and physical education to create a “comprehensive” educational experience, Annear said.

School receiver Anthony Soto said how students spend their day is being examined. The students told Soto they wanted more time for lunch, recess and other activities. “Our teachers have asked for more collaboration time,” he said.

Soto hoped the end-of-year data would indicate student growth or the decrease in the red bar on the charts. However, he said kids in front of computers all day was “absolutely wrong”.

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