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Colorado spent $231 million to help young children catch up on reading. But rates of kids with significant deficiencies only worsened.

The READ Act program still has not produced any significant improvement in the reading skills of the students it targeted

Kindergartener Lea Wickham during a reading intervention session with teacher Katie Hoiland at Aragon Elementary in Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8. Aragon is one of the schools that showed drastic improvement in reading levels after using a competitive grant from the READ Act to overhaul teaching techniques. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado spent $231.37 million in the past five years trying to help young children who lag behind their peers to read at their grade level, but the rate of students in danger of never becoming proficient only has worsened during that time.

Now Colorado’s top education officials and state legislators say the lack of gains means an overhaul is due for the Colorado Reading to Ensure Academic Development Act, one of the top education initiatives at the state Capitol in years.

Poor progress under the program, known as the READ Act, has some legislators concerned that state aid intended to fix reading woes was mismanaged. Money and time has been squandered that could have been used changing the trajectory of students considered most in danger of dropping out of school, critics say.

“The READ Act is failing, and we’re not getting those things done we need to get done, and we need to look at it differently,” said state Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument, who co-chaired an interim legislative committee that studied school financing in Colorado. “Meanwhile, the system is rising up to preserve and protect itself.”

First grader Serenity Schneider reads in Katlyn Smith’s First Grade classroom Wednesday, January 23, 2019 at Aragon Elementary in Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8. Last year, 43 percent of kindergartners were tested as significantly deficient in reading at the beginning of the year, but only 4 percent remained so at the end of the school year. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Six years after signing, READ Act is flat

Hope was high when Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the READ Act into law in May 2012.

“This is legislation that really does put kids first,” Hickenlooper said during the signing ceremony, flanked by second graders. “Reading proficiency is the single most powerful foundation that we have for all future success.”

The legislation delivered state aid to school districts and required them to monitor the reading proficiency of students in kindergarten through third grade. It also was supposed to ensure school districts would get state money for interventions for students reading significantly below their grade level.

The idea was those resources would make sure struggling students could read at grade level by third grade, a crucial milestone. Extensive research shows students with reading woes after that grade may never catch up and are most in danger of dropping out of school.

But the READ Act program still has not produced any significant improvement in the reading skills of the students it targeted even as its annual cost to the state has risen to $42.5 million, according to state data.

In 2013, the first year the Colorado Department of Education put the program fully into place, 14.4 percent of the state’s students in kindergarten through third grade were identified with a “significant reading deficiency,” a technical term the state uses to identify students so far behind their peers that they are in danger of never learning to read.

In the fiscal year that ended in July 2018, that percentage worsened to 15.5 percent.

MORE: Read more education coverage from The Colorado Sun.

Only 40 percent of third graders in the state are reading at their grade level now, barely up from the 38 percent who could do so four years ago. For students who live in poverty, the situation is even worse, with only about 27 percent at or exceeding their grade level for reading. Colorado education officials say that six years after the legislation became law they remain far behind their goal of ensuring all third graders can meet the reading expectations for their grade.

“We’re really just seeing incremental improvements,” said Melissa Colsman, the Colorado Department of Education’s associate commissioner of student learning. “I think legislators, and we would agree, want to see more dramatic improvements.”

Fears over fund mismanagement, outdated techniques

Criticism ranges from fears the state aid — $875 for each pupil identified with a significant reading deficiency last year — isn’t actually going toward intensive interventions, to concern that many teachers in the state may not be up to date on the best practices for teaching students how to read. Suggested fixes include putting READ Act money into earlier preschool interventions and a push to bolster state oversight of how school districts spend the money.

“While we’re sitting here discussing this, we have kids in K through third grade and right on up that are still not learning to read,” state Sen. Dennis Hisey, a Republican from Fountain, said during a recent budget briefing with state education officials. “So when are you going to get back to us with, ‘This is what we need?’”

The answer to that question from Education Commissioner Katy Anthes, nearly seven years after the READ Act was signed into law, is that what to do remains under review. The Colorado Board of Education still hasn’t weighed in, she said.

“We usually don’t ask you for more money until we talk to the board about it,” Anthes added.

Kindergarten teacher Katie Hoiland holds a reading intervention session on Jan. 23, 2019 at Aragon Elementary in Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8. Aragon is one of the schools that showed drastic improvement in reading levels after using a competitive grant from the READ Act to overhaul teaching techniques. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Parents worry kids are “falling through the cracks”

The poor results are prompting parents to act on their own while legislators and state officials debate what to do.

Lindsay Drakos pulled her three children, two of whom are dyslexic, out of her neighborhood school in the Littleton Public Schools district and enrolled them in Littleton Preparatory Charter School. Even though the Littleton district has some of the best reading proficiency rates in the state, Drakos said she still had to act because the children’s previous teachers weren’t up to speed on the best way to teach reading.

She’s known since her oldest daughter was 4 that there was something wrong with the way the child processed words, and she suspected dyslexia. But Littleton school officials repeatedly pointed to the fact that the children had spent their early years in Greece as the reason her daughter struggled. After the dyslexia finally was confirmed, she said school officials still dragged their feet on getting her child the individualized attention Drakos believed she needed.

Drakos said she’s seen dramatic improvement since putting her daughters, ages 7, 10 and 12, in the charter school, which uses structured literacy instruction. Her oldest daughter, now in seventh grade, is in honors classes. Last year, she read 16 books.

Drakos said that in part due to her prodding the Littleton Public Schools has put in place a task force to study issues of dyslexia and how best to teach students how to read. Officials with the district did not return messages seeking comment.

“It’s a fixable problem,” Drakos said. “But we’re doing everything the wrong way. Meanwhile, kids are suffering and they’re falling through the cracks.”

Lundeen, the Republican lawmaker, has grown so frustrated he’s proposing legislation that would carve an extra $10 million annually from the state’s general fund. He wants to use the money to provide $500 annual grants to poor families who could use them to bypass their schools and hire tutors for students with poor reading skills.

The state board of education this week voted 4-3 against Lundeen’s proposal. Board member Val Flores, a Democrat, argued the READ Act had not been given sufficient time and money to succeed and that the $10 million would be better used bolstering the program.

Lawmakers across aisle want answers

The ire over the program is bipartisan at the state Capitol, even if the suggested fixes differ. Former state Rep. Millie Hamner, a Democrat from Dillon who shepherded the READ Act through the legislature in 2012, said she was dismayed when she toured one Front Range school she declined to name. A teacher confronted her about all the data tracking and paperwork the READ Act required, Hamner recalled.

“I said, ‘Are the resources that come with the program not helping you to teach the students?’ And she looked at me with a blank look,” Hamner said. “At that time the district was receiving $1,000 per student (classified with a significant reading deficiency). I walked away from that interaction very disappointed.”

Kindergartener Chloe Scott works on a reading project in Katie Hoiland’s classroom at Aragon Elementary in Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8. READ Act grant money was used to overhaul teaching techniques to encourage reading progress at the school, even extending into the music classes. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Hamner said the state should not get rid of the program and stressed that she believes more state funding actually is needed to tackle reading woes. Yet she said she fears gains won’t be made until the state builds in more accountability to ensure school districts are spending READ Act money appropriately. She believes too many districts have plowed the money into generalized summer school programming without targeting students who can’t read.

Colsman, of the state department of education, confirmed that her staff has had to clarify for several districts that any summer schools financed through the READ Act must use the money to help pupils who have reading deficiencies and not on general programs.

State can’t track spending or dictate programs

The bulk of the state money from the READ Act that goes to school districts is based on a per pupil payment ($839 this year) for each student with a significant reading deficiency. That per-pupil formula will cost the state $33.2 million this year, but there are few strings attached. The state essentially takes school districts at their word that they are spending the money to fix reading woes.

Colsman said the state still doesn’t track how school districts actually spend their per-pupil READ Act money, though officials are trying to come up with expenditure codes for such tracking.

The state has developed a list of curriculums that research shows do a good job of reaching students who are struggling to read. But districts are free to use their READ Act per-pupil funds on whatever curriculum they want, even on interventions researchers have found ineffective.

“Typically, as with any education policy, we’re only given so much authority on what we can tell districts to do and what we monitor for,” Colsman said in an interview with The Colorado Sun.

The state spends $3 million annually through the READ Act to provide diagnostic software school districts can use to assess student reading levels, but not all districts use it. Data shows the state’s software is used on fewer than half of the students in the state. The reading proficiency of most of the young students in Colorado is determined through other diagnostic tools never subjected to quality reviews by the state.

Meanwhile, state tracking of READ Act student performance shows that only 6 percent of children identified with a significant reading deficiency in kindergarten were reading at their grade level by third grade.

“All of us are looking for a way to get better results for kids because we can’t wait a generation for this,” Colsman said.

Half of state districts see worsening rates for significant deficiencies

Nearly half of the state’s 178 school districts saw the rate of students with significant reading deficiencies worsen since the READ Act program was put in place, according to a review of state data.

Commerce City’s Adams County 14 school district, home to 7,500 students, received more than $3 million in per-pupil READ Act funding to tackle significant reading deficiencies from 2012 through 2018, but reading problems there have worsened over same period.

In 2014, slightly more than 18 percent of the district’s kindergarten through third-grade students had a significant reading deficiency, according to state records. By 2018, that rate had more than doubled to nearly 40 percent.

New administrators at the district, forced by the Colorado Board of Education in November to hire an outside management consultant, said they’ve discovered the reading curriculum they were using was ineffective and not suited to the district’s heavily bilingual student population. They’ve since switched curriculum and are putting in place a summer school program devoted solely to reading instruction.

“Over the past 19 years we’ve had a high turnover in teachers and administrators,” said Jeanette Patterson, who was hired as the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction last summer. “We’ve had to do a lot of training and retraining and retraining. That leads to inconsistency in the literacy block at the elementary school level.”

Kindergarten teacher Katie Hoiland works on a reading project with students Reese Bennett, left, and Demitris Mitchell on Jan. 23, 2019 at Aragon Elementary in Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8. Aragon is one of the schools that showed drastic improvement in reading levels after using a competitive grant from the READ Act to overhaul teaching techniques. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Competitive grant program portion of READ Act showing success

One part of the READ Act has produced positive results. The program has a $6.2 million annual competitive grant program for schools with high rates of students with significant reading deficiencies. School officials applying for the three- to four-year grants must submit a detailed proposal on how they plan to spend extra money. The state monitors results and withholds grant money if reading improvement is not occurring. The schools participating must use reading interventions approved by the state. A state consultant helps coordinate how schools tackle reading problems.

The results have been promising. While statewide the number of students identified with significant reading deficiencies in grades K-3 worsened, increasing to 15.7 percent in 2017 from from 14.8 percent in 2016, the opposite was true for schools that received competitive grants. Those schools saw the number of students with significant reading deficiencies decrease to 15.9 percent in 2017 from 16.2 percent in 2016.

At Aragon Elementary School in Fountain, south of Colorado Springs, administrators were struggling four years ago when they applied for the grant. Classroom disturbances had surged at the school, where about 80 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced meals. Frustrated students who started school far behind their peers weren’t making progress and were acting out, principal Tracey Landrum said.

“We were all hoping something would be the magic bullet to get our people to read,” Landrum said.

The first year of the grant revealed some struggles. A literacy coach the school hired with the grant quit and teachers pushed back against new curriculum, Landrum recalled. In the second year, the grant paid for the hiring of Annie Fiore, an 18-year teaching veteran, who helped overhaul teaching techniques with the help of the state consultant.

Now, teachers set aside 10 minutes each morning in all classrooms to go over phonemic awareness, or learning to hear the sounds that form the building blocks of early reading. Even the music teacher has taken up the challenge and has her students tap out words and syllables during singing lessons. Teachers also provide 45 minutes of targeted daily reading skill instruction, with students broken into small groups based on ability level.

Progress is tracked on a classroom wall where the reading level of each student is detailed and monitored daily. Students who need individualized attention get it. Fiore this year gave special tutoring to one third grader who arrived at Aragon far behind his grade level for reading, the result of the student having shuttled in and out of multiple schools due to repeated moves by the family.

Last year, the data wall revealed significant gains. At the start of the school year, 43 percent of the kindergartners were in the red zone, with significant reading deficiencies. By the end of the year, just 4 percent, or four students, were in that zone. This year, classroom disturbances are subsiding in early grade levels as the gains continue.

At the start of this school year, 57 percent of Aragon’s kindergarteners struggled with significant reading deficiencies. As of this week, just 13 percent, or nine pupils, still were lagging far behind.

“There is a sense of urgency now,” Fiore said. “These teachers are feeling it. They are giving 100 percent to these students.”

Some districts slow to adopt latest techniques to teach reading

One issue state officials say they have detected as they monitor the effectiveness of the READ Act is that not all teachers are up to date on how best to teach reading.

“There is really a rich bank of research in the science of reading,” Colsman told legislators during one budget briefing. “What I think some of our data is telling us is some of our educators need more support in that science of reading. That is truly an issue that we hear quite a bit from our principals and literacy coaches and superintendents.”

In the 2016-17 school year, 22 Colorado schools joined a pilot program analyzing structured literacy, a program state officials believe could improve reading instruction throughout Colorado. A survey at the start of that pilot program found fewer than half of the 63 kindergarten and first-grade teachers participating knew how to teach English language structure.

Colsman said the state requires Colorado colleges and universities that provide a degree in education to teach the science of reading, but the state can’t confirm that all teachers have received that instruction since more than half of them received their degrees outside the state.

“This is an important policy question,” Colsman said. “A number of very small districts don’t have resources to ensure their teachers have that knowledge. That’s an area for us at the education department to look at. How do we fix that gap to the greatest extent that we can?”

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