New reading law takes off

As parent-teacher conferences unfold this month, some elementary parents may be feeling lost in a flurry of unfamiliar acronyms: DIBELS, DRA2 and PALS.

These are some of the reading assessments that K-3 students will now take about three times a year under a new law meant to ensure students are reading at grade level by third grade.

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The READ Act, passed in 2012 and now in its first year of full implementation, is a stronger and more explicit successor to the state’s previous reading law, the Colorado Basic Literacy Act. The new law, which would allow third-graders to be retained if they’re reading below grade level, has plenty of company nationally. About two-thirds of states have laws that focus on third-grade reading proficiency with 14 of them allowing retention at the end of third grade for struggling readers, according a 2012 report from the Education Commission of the States.

Under the READ Act, K-3 students will be tested using one of the state-approved reading tests in early fall. If they score below the cut score, they will be tested again within 30 days. If they don’t achieve the cut score a second time, they will be identified as having a “significant reading deficiency” and their parents will be contacted to help school staff develop a “READ Plan.” The plans can include such provisions as tutoring, full-day kindergarten, summer school and specific reading interventions from a list of state-approved programs.

Most parents whose children are deemed to have significant reading deficiencies will probably be contacted by the end of this month to participate in the creation of their child’s plan. The law mandates that educators make concerted efforts to communicate with and involve parents.

“Now, the parents are actually inside the development of any plan,” said Susan Olezene, director of teaching and learning with Denver Public Schools. “I think parents are going to be involved in the process much earlier.”

How big is the problem?

In 2013, about 27 percent of the state’s third-graders didn’t pass the TCAP in reading. While that may indicate the number of students who experience at least some reading trouble, the actual proportion of students with READ Plans will be lower.

Last spring, more than 42,000 K-3 students in Colorado, or about 16 percent, were designated as having significant reading deficiencies based on test scores from the DIBELS, PALS or DRA2. While those results were not used to make decisions about which students get READ Plans this year, they offer a general picture of what the numbers will look like. In other words, approximately one out of every six K-3 students will probably get a READ Plan this year.

Not surprisingly, some of the state’s biggest districts are expected to have the largest cohorts of students with significant deficiencies, though it’s not a one-to-one correlation. For example, Jeffco, Denver, Douglas County, Cherry Creek and Adams 12 Five Star are the five largest districts, but the districts with the largest cohorts of struggling readers are, in descending order, Denver, Aurora, Jeffco, Adams 12 Five Star and Cherry Creek. Last month, the state distributed $15.4 million in READ Act funding based on each district’s numbers, with per-pupil amounts at $363.33.

The retention question

What’s not clear from last spring’s round of reading tests is how many students will face retention if they still have significant reading deficiencies at the end of this year.

While most of the debate around retention in the READ Act has been about third-graders, retention is possible in the three lower grades as well. The difference is that parents will have the final say for grades K-2, while, starting in 2016-17, superintendents or other administrators will make the final decision for third-graders.

All told, 2,085 Colorado students in kindergarten to third grade were retained in 2011-12, the most recent data available from the Colorado Department of Education.

Pati Montgomery, executive director of the office of literacy at CDE, said she expects retention under the READ Act to be a last resort. If it is considered, she said, it will be based on a “body of evidence” not just a single reading score.

In Florida, which passed one of the country’s first reading laws in 2002, third-grade retention rates jumped from 3.1 percent in 2001-02 to 13.2 percent in 2002-03. Although the proportion has gradually declined, it was still nearly 7 percent in 2011-12, according to the Florida Department of Education.

At Kendallvue Elementary in Morrison, Principal Vicki Ferrari doesn’t think retention numbers will look any different under the READ Act than they have in the past. None of the school’s third-graders were retained last year.

Assessments galore

One fact of life under the READ Act for students with significant reading deficiencies will be frequent assessment. After the initial two DIBELS, PALS or DRA2 tests that determine a READ Plan is necessary, students will take a state-approved diagnostic assessment to indicate the specific skills they are having problems with and help teachers choose an intervention strategy.

After READ Plans are in place, teachers will monitor students’ progress with brief assessments every two weeks. Olezene said these could be a one-minute exercise checking a student’s reading fluency or another skill.

“It’s not like I take you out and assess you for another hour,” she said.

Most students, regardless of whether they have a READ Plan, will take the PALS, DIBELS or DRA2 in the winter and again at the end of the school year. Finally, third-graders will also take the state TCAP test  in the spring. Under the READ Act, districts have the option of giving students in kindergarten through second grade a different “summative” literacy assessment to gauge their end-of-year skills.

Educating parents

With the READ Act in its infancy, it’s likely most Colorado parents don’t know much about it. But since parents are seen as key partners under the law, the Colorado Department of Education and individual districts and schools are trying to change that.

At Kendallvue, a district-provided information sheet on the READ Act was reprinted in the school newsletter and details of the law were explained at a meeting of the school’s accountability committee. In Denver Public Schools, where more than 6,000 students may get READ plans this year, information about the law is available through its parent portal, though administrators did soften the language somewhat, replacing the term “significant reading deficiency” with “reading significantly below grade level.”

“You can see it all through our documents,” said Olezene. “Saying someone has a deficiency is really hard to say.”

In addition to providing a mass of READ Act information on its website, CDE has convened a six-member “parent group” to help inform parents about the law as well as their role in the READ Plan process.

“It’s not just the responsibility of the school. It’s the responsibility of the parent…We’re working on empowering parents to ask the questions,” said Montgomery. “There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘Can you tell me about the intervention my child will be receiving?’”

Coverage of early literacy is supported in part by a grant from Mile High United Way. EdNews Colorado retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.