"We were in the teens and we jumped," Newkirk said.
The school system, under a reading initiative begun in the 1998-99 year, hired teachers specifically to sharpen students' literacy skills. Students took tests to measure their ability and got reading grades on their report cards.
The new initiative helped teachers keep track of their students' abilities, according to Newkirk. "In order to fix a problem, you have to know what it is first," he said.
The initiative also informs parents of their kids' progress, creating more feedback from home to school, he said.
Kindergarten teachers tested youngsters using a checklist of print concepts such as the ability to recognize identical words on a page or to read from left to right.
In 1998, 33 percent scored 80 percent or better, according to Newkirk. This year, 45 percent reached that level. The number of children scoring 55 percent or below decreased from 34 percent to 25 percent.
First- and second-graders were tested at the end of the marking period, Oct. 29, using books picked to be benchmarks. Students who could read and understand the standard book for their grade and semester are considered "on level."
Students who can read more advanced books are considered "above level." Last year, 33 percent of the first-graders were on or above level, compared to 46 percent this year. In the second grade, the percentage of students on or above level rose from 59 percent to 70 percent.
In third-, fourth- and fifth-grade, students read from a list of 20 words. Based on how many they understood, each was given a passage to read silently. Afterward, they answered comprehension questions.
Using the "informal reading inventory," teachers found students at those grades also performed better this year. But Newkirk noted that students were allowed to re-read texts this year, while last year they were not allowed to do so.
Some scores mislead
Newkirk said scores in the higher grades can be misleading because testing is done at the start of the school year, not the end of the marking period. "No instruction has taken place," he said.
Data shows fourth- and fifth-grade students have difficulty comprehending while reading, according to Newkirk. Although they may understand once they finish, some don't make ongoing connections.
"A lot of our kids don't like to reread," he said. "They just like to go from the beginning to the end."
Students should compare texts to other texts as well as their own lives and experiences, Newkirk said.
That is part of the initiative's purpose. "Our ultimate goal is for all children to be independent readers," he said.
Teachers divide students into small, guided reading groups, which Newkirk said helps students learn best. "The person who has the greatest effect on a child's reading is the classroom teacher," he said.