Destiny Sparks is interested in reading about historical figures who look like her such as African American entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker.
After years in Fort Worth ISD, Destiny started losing interest in reading. She didn’t relate to her school’s books. She couldn’t get one-on-one time with her teacher to ask questions about the history she loved.
Destiny, a sixth-grader, became anxious about reading. Her scores started slipping. She passed the 2023 state standardized test with lower grades than the previous year, which were also lower than the last. Her mother, Dawnshetta Sparks, said Destiny failed the math test because she couldn’t comprehend the questions.
Sparks pulled her daughter out of Fort Worth ISD last year.
Destiny is not alone. Many Black students at Fort Worth ISD are struggling to read at their grade level. Black students’ reading scores lag behind those of most other groups in Fort Worth ISD — a statistic that parents, experts and district officials have acknowledged. Yet they each have a different way to address the issue.
“Some kids are just reading off of memory. Some can’t read. Some don’t know how to pronounce words — some do. But the district is not worrying about that. They’re assuming children are coming to school prepared and prepped with these skills,” Sparks said.
Black students across all levels at Fort Worth ISD score lower than other demographics in the 2023 State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness test. Only 21% of Black third-graders met grade level, compared with 30% of Hispanic, 46% of Asian and 62% of white students.
How does the district help Black students?
Fort Worth ISD went through an organizational restructuring in the summer of 2023 and created the Learning and Leading branch.
The restructure allows district leaders to collaborate on improving literacy rates for different groups of students. Before this academic year, leaders in the district looked at multiple data and test scores to develop specific plans for each campus, said Mary Jane Bowman, the district’s executive director of humanities and academic support initiatives.
Fort Worth ISD uses the numbers to develop solutions — whether to build teacher capacity or provide learning opportunities — for its students, Bowman said.
“We’re definitely very cognizant of where the data is,” she said.
Compared to other statewide districts with similar demographics — Aldine ISD, Dallas ISD and Houston ISD — Fort Worth ISD had fewer Black students who met grade level in the reading test.
The district regularly looks at how students perform, Bowman said. Every six weeks, students take a unit assessment test to help the district determine whether instruction methods need changes.
Instead of sending home report cards every six weeks, parents need more transparency from the district and want to know what strong, actionable measures they can do to help their children, said Trenace Dorsey-Hollins, founder and executive director of Parent Shield Fort Worth, a parental advocacy group.
“All parents want their kids to succeed,” Dorsey-Hollins said.
Students at the elementary level have programs like high-impact tutoring and Saturday school, with the district regularly monitoring their effectiveness, Bowman said. Fort Worth ISD is developing Club Ignite, a new program to help middle and high school students with reading and math.
While some want to do away with STAAR, the scores are the only way to hold schools, districts and leaders accountable, Dorsey-Hollins said.
“Without that, we don’t have any specific receipt to hold them to, so we need that data,” she said.
Test scores are important, but that shouldn’t determine everything, said Audrey Sorrells, a Texas Christian University education professor. Sorrells’ research focuses on the intersection of culture and disability through the lens of the Black student experience in public education in the U.S.
“Tests have good intentions but unintended consequences,” Sorrells said. “Because if we don’t really have a good sense of what students value in learning, and how we can bridge their cultures and learning across these different contexts, then it’s very difficult to get a true picture of a student’s potential and their expected outcomes.”
Addressing low literacy rates in Black students
When examining Black students’ literacy rates, people look at the historical context rather than any particular point in time, Sorrells said.
Systemic problems, such as social, health and economic, or opportunity gaps, where minority communities still face issues stemming from anti-literacy laws from the past generations, can all impact how students learn how to read.
The challenges are not exclusive to the Black community, Sorrells said. Examining the problems through that lens may help educators address problems from other communities, such as immigrants, low-income families or students with disabilities.
Destiny’s experience is shared among many in Fort Worth ISD. Dorsey-Hollins said the parents she talked to believe the district should focus more on culture and race in literacy, as many Black students don’t relate to the material being covered.
Dorsey-Hollins introduces parents and students at Parent Shield to the science of reading, which teaches students how to read by focusing on phonics, word recognition, fluency, and text and vocabulary comprehension.
The method helps students learn how to read regardless of their race, gender or socioeconomic status, she said. Instead, some teachers are stuck on teaching literacy through pictures. As children grow older, books have fewer pictures, and the reading gap increases.
The district is in the second year of using the state-approved reading curriculum called Amplify, which focuses on the science of reading, Bowman said.
“Last year was the first year of implementation,” Bowman said. “This year, we really have an opportunity now that teachers are familiar with the structures (and) the components in the resources to really do a deeper internalization of not only the unit but the lessons.”
‘It’s about my child’s future’
Sparks’ youngest daughter, Dajah, will take the STAAR test in the spring.
Dajah is dyslexic. Last year, her second-grade teacher at East Handley Elementary helped a lot. She held picnics to discuss what the class just learned and used Pokemon cards as rewards if the children answered trivia answers correctly, Sparks said.
Sparks has a good relationship with Dajah’s current teacher. Still, she may take Dajah out of Fort Worth ISD if the third-grader’s reading ability doesn’t improve.
“If she passes the test, but she’s not reading or comprehending well, that’s still an issue for me,” she said. “It’s not just about the test score for me, but it’s about my child’s future.”
Dang Le is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com 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.