The library at M.H. Moore Elementary in Fort Worth ISD was anything but quiet after lunch on a recent Monday.
Students were gearing up to show off their vocal skills during a few rounds of karaoke, a reward for meeting their reading goals. The fun activity still put students’ reading skills to the test, this time as lyrics scrolled across a screen.
“They already sing songs. Now, they know the words. They’re sight reading,” librarian Linda Abeyta said, as the song “Talking to the Moon” by Bruno Mars started to play.
Fort Worth ISD officials attributed decreases in reading rate scores on the state standardized exam to a lack of teacher preparation. Officials are hopeful a restructured approach to low reading levels and a sprinkling of Moore Elementary’s reading culture, which has shown positive results in the past, can stem declining scores.
Fort Worth ISD students meeting grade level on the reading portion of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, dropped in all grades except sixth. The Texas Education Agency redesigned STAAR to include more written responses and open-ended questions and to be administered online.
Only 32% of third graders met grade level across the district — a 6 percentage-point drop from 2022. Fort Worth ISD’s reading rates have languished since 2017, when current metrics for the test were first introduced.
Fort Worth ISD’s third-grade reading rate was among the lowest of the state’s 10 largest school districts. Only Aldine ISD was lower, at 31%.
During a mid-October interview with a TV station, Superintendent Angélica Ramsey said she wants to reframe discussions about Fort Worth ISD’s academic performance on state tests because of the district’s number of bilingual students.
Nearly 2 in 5 Fort Worth ISD students are in either bilingual or English-as-a-second-language education. That number across the state is 1 in 5 students.
The Dallas, Houston and Aldine school districts have similar or higher percentages of bilingual students. All three have more third graders reading on grade level than Fort Worth ISD.
“I don’t care really what the state has to say about how we’re doing,” Ramsey told the TV station.
Ramsey was not available for an interview with the Fort Worth Report, a district spokesperson said.
Districtwide changes for reading
Mary Jane Bowman is in charge of literacy in Fort Worth ISD. She was hired during the summer specifically to impact reading.
Her priority was to break down barriers that prevented the district from properly helping students. As executive director of humanities and academic support initiatives, she works with other departments to identify students who need help reading and provide them with quality interventions and support. She also works alongside district leaders who oversee principals.
All of this builds up a more coherent method of supporting students, Bowman said.
Bowman’s guiding light is high expectations for all students, she said. Right now, the district isn’t meeting them.
“We own that data, and we know that’s an area we definitely need to make sure that our students are prepared for what they’re being asked to do and that they have equal opportunity to be able to master things like reading expectations,” Bowman said. “We want our kids to read.”
Inside the classroom, the state is training teachers on effective reading instruction. The state requires kindergarten through third-grade teachers to complete Texas Reading Academies courses, with two versions of the training offered:
- Blended courses that teachers could take online and were $400 per participant.
- Comprehensive classes that were completed through in-person training with exercises and individual coaching for $3,000 per participant.
For the 2023-24 school year, the Texas Education Agency shifted the academies to the comprehensive approach. Survey data from TEA showed 92% of teachers who participated in the in-person courses had a stronger understanding of how to teach reading.
Fort Worth ISD is better using instructional coaches to help teachers plan lessons and educate students on reading, Bowman said.
Students will see new reading lessons going forward. The district is now using a state-approved reading curriculum called Amplify, Bowman said. Amplify is built on the science of how children learn how to read.
In 2022, the district spent more than $8.5 million to adopt Amplify and two other reading curricula. Federal pandemic relief dollars funded the purchase.
‘Get students excited’
The entrance of Moore Elementary is lined with trophies. Two stick out to Principal Ricardo Alvarez Uzcategui. For the past two years, the school has won the NCAA’s Readers Become Leaders challenge.
The school prepares all year for the competition. Everyone is involved, from students and their teachers to other staff members and the surrounding community.
Students read books at school and at home as their teachers and parents track each minute spent buried in reading material. Books are available to check out from the library, but each student also has access to an online library on their Fort Worth ISD-issued devices.
Success is celebrated for big and small wins. Students earn treats and celebrations. Sometimes, they even get a gold token to the school’s book vending machine.
The excitement Moore Elementary has built comes down to three points: multiple layers of data tracking, celebration and accountability through quizzes, Alvarez Uzcategui said.
“It’s really important to get students excited about reading, and adding a little bit of competition has been very successful for us,” he said.
The number of Moore third graders reading on grade level increased to 41% in 2022, the highest percentage recorded at the school since STAAR started.
In 2023, 26% of third-grade students met grade level on the reading test — a 15 percentage-point decrease. However, two other metrics, students who approached grade level and above and those who failed, stayed about the same.
“We don’t like it, and we are working on it, so that we change that trend,” Alvarez Uzcategui said.
He emphasized his school has high standards for students. Approaching grade level does not cut it, he said. Instead, students need to be at grade level or above to meet the school’s high standards.
“We need to push everybody to a higher level,” the principal said.
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.