Fighting for Change


Systems That Control the Classroom


How does a Rio Grande Valley child reach eighth grade with a second-grade reading level?

There are too many pieces to the puzzle and not one solid answer. Kristin Keith, currently an eighth grade special education teacher at W.A. Todd Middle School in Donna, shed light on the educational experience and expectations of teachers at different levels in the area. Keith used to teach first grade. She discussed everything from grade level priorities placed on fluency, writing, and overall reading comprehension, as well as what is being done to boost literacy in schools.  

First, it’s important to highlight that when it comes to the public school system, there are many systems that are collectively at work, making the decisions that will influence what happens in your child’s classroom, and facilitating how teachers will fill their lesson plans. When it comes to making decisions on curriculum, many educational entities have input. The federal government passes laws and supports Texas financially, while Texas funds its public schools as well. Each financial provider sets their own standards. In addition, there are more than 30 autonomous school districts in the Valley, each with their own superintendent and school boards. Together, the educational collaborative governs the emphasis individual schools place on what is important to teach.

In the state of Texas, students in pre-K through second grade build their foundation in reading comprehension, which begins at phonics and phonemic awareness and carries to fluency, comprehension, inferencing, and much more. Students are largely graded by their abilities in reading comprehension at the end of the year. And though these reading skills are continually part of the public school student’s curriculum, around third grade marks a shift when it comes to a student’s measure of success.

“For first grade, a student’s achievements are measured by their reading level,” said Kristin Keith, eighth grade special education teacher at W.A. Todd Middle School in Donna. “In junior high, it’s measured through STAAR, even though their reading level is still tested.”   

Not every school district or even school is the same, but for the most part, a huge emphasis is given to passing the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness. Public school students take the assessments starting in third grade through high school. According to the Texas State Education Agency, it is a bundle of state-mandated standardized tests used in Texas to evaluate a student’s accomplishments and knowledge learned in the corresponding grade level. It’s given in reading, writing, math, science, and history.

Help for students still struggling with reading comprehension is different at every school.

“The resources available to students not reading on grade level and who are not in the special education program will vary from campus to campus as well as district to district,” Keith said. “Currently, at our campus there are guided reading classes aimed at helping students get caught up.”  

Even though students can benefit from programs like the one at this campus, the reality is their measure of success isn’t based on whether they advanced a reading grade level by the end of the year. It’s whether they passed the STAAR. Both teachers and principals perform their duties to the best of their abilities, carrying an immense weight on their shoulders to ensure students can attain a specific score at the end of the year.  

“I grew up in Kentucky where students took standardized tests, but we didn’t spend the entire year preparing for it,” Keith said. “Passing or failing a grade level didn’t depend on our scores, either. In fact student’s didn’t, and they still don’t, get scores until the following fall. Rather than looking at the progress of the students in their reading levels, it all goes back to the test.”

The systems in place here aren’t built to focus on a student’s fluency or reading comprehension all the way through 12th grade and teachers have to work around that reality.      

There is no single resolution to the illiteracy problem in our area. Respect and appreciation should be given to hardworking educators who teach under the umbrella of our vast educational bureaucracy. For now, we can help by encouraging any person who tirelessly works to reform the education system. These individuals are the ones trying to make sure students don’t continue to “fall between the cracks,” meaning they are passed to the next grade but not necessarily on a paired reading level. True reform will have to start with the decision makers who can reevaluate what is really important for students to have learned upon graduation.