Focusing on Literacy for 21st-Century Skill Building

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By Dr. Joseph C. Barrow, Jr.
Our district has a strong reputation for being one of the most successful in Georgia—consistently achieving high scores on state assessments and an above-average graduation rate.
In 2015, Georgia’s Department of Education replaced end-of-year assessments with a new test, the Georgia Milestones, to incorporate more rigorous writing and literacy standards. The year after implementation, Fayette County, along with many other schools in the state, saw a drop in scores.
The previous state assessment was filled with a variety of multiple choice, true/false and comprehension questions which our students were very used to seeing and answering. The new assessment holds schools and students to a higher standard and is more rigorous, asking students to demonstrate mastery of a concept or topic using short-answer style questions and writing prompts. The drop in scores and reformatting of the assessments led us to make a strategic shift in instructional practices to increase rigor and focus on meeting new literacy standards across disciplines.

Every Teacher is a Literacy Teacher

To meet the new standards, we had two challenges to address: first, increase rigor for our students, and second, change our teachers’ mindsets to focus on literacy throughout the whole day, as opposed to isolating reading and writing in a single class period. To meet these goals, we needed additional support from the district to help educators integrate literacy skills into all subjects.
Reading and literacy have always been high on the list of our district’s priorities. Fayette County middle school students take a traditional reading class as part of their daily schedule. Each teacher, regardless of area of discipline, teaches one reading class. Many of them follow the same readings, activities and assignments over and over. But this format doesn’t really allow educators to show their passion for reading and doesn’t always allow for differentiation of text for students reading at a variety of levels.
We quickly identified the reading class as an area where the district could provide more support and resources for educators, as it impacts every teacher and every student in our schools. We explained that we weren’t asking teachers to help students to sound out words or practice sentence structure, but to help them learn to demonstrate their understanding by citing evidence, creating an argument using research, and self-reflecting on what they read. To us, that’s literacy.
Beginning in August 2015, we incorporated ThinkCERCA, a personalized literacy solution focused on providing content and curriculum across all content areas, which enabled five middle schools to support reading and writing skill growth and provide a go-to resource for educators looking for relevant content. Right away, the increased level of rigor was evident. Educators and students alike found the content and questions difficult—which we saw as a good thing. Instead of simply answering questions correctly, students are now asked to develop an argument and demonstrate their comprehension of the topic—things they’ve never been asked to do, but are now required by the state.
The solution makes it easier for educators to search for relevant content and resources. Each lesson within the solution comes complete with the necessary tools, curriculum, assignments and resources that show educators how to incorporate literacy skills into their everyday lessons.
As I mentioned, a big part of building literacy skills is differentiating texts for each student. Some students are proficient readers and should be challenged by reading harder text, while others struggle to read on grade level and need additional assistance. We like our new solution because it lets educators differentiate materials using leveled passages, so students can participate and contribute to lessons at a level they’re comfortable with. Working at their own level fosters students’ growth in literacy skills such as close reading, constructing a cohesive argumentative and creating pieces of informational or narrative writing across subjects.
Educators, especially those in specialty subjects like math or science, often focus on their own content area. With the new literacy focus, however, our teachers are coming together in new ways to learn and collaborate with each other using Wikispaces, workshops and other digital outlets to share ideas on best practices.
As we approach 2017, we will continue to develop stronger professional learning communities to ensure our teachers have the ongoing support needed to continue the initial success we have seen from this transition.

Literacy Shift Brings Increased Test Scores

With the strategic shift in place, we began to see results. In just one school year, the number of Fayette County middle school students scoring average or above average on the state writing assessment nearly doubled—rising from 36 percent in 2015 to 70 percent in 2016.
All middle schools saw an increase in student writing proficiency from sixth to seventh grade. At one middle school, a sixth-grade class saw the number of proficient or above average learners jump from 17 percent to 66 percent. At another school, only 52 percent of sixth-graders scored average or above average in writing on the 2015 state assessment.
In 2016, 80 percent of those same students scored average or above average on the same portion of the exam, a result that has made us proud.
While new state tests triggered our shift from reading to literacy, we now recognize that our heightened focus on literacy will more thoroughly instill the 21st-century skills our students need to succeed in their adult lives. Literacy is a cross-curricular skill that should not be isolated in any one department, but should naturally become part of every lesson in every content area. As part of our district-wide literacy focus, we plan to not only continue realizing improvements in writing and reading levels, but performance in all content areas as well.
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Dr. Joseph C. Barrow, Jr. is the Superintendent of Fayette County Schools, and has served as a teacher, assistant principal, principal and superintendent across the K-12 spectrum in several Georgia school systems. Follow FCS on Twitter: @fcboe

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