Upward trend: More of Denver’s youngest students are reading at grade-level

Denver Public Schools is celebrating a double-digit jump from the beginning to the end of last school year in the percentage of its youngest students who are reading on grade level.

In the fall of 2016, 50 percent of Denver kindergarten through third-grade students who took the most commonly used reading test, called Istation, scored on grade level or above, according to district statistics. By the spring of 2017, that number had increased to 67 percent.

Denver schools can choose from four tests to measure students’ reading ability. The majority — 80 percent — use Istation, officials said. Taking into account results from all four tests, the number of students reading on grade level in the fall compared to the spring increased by a more modest 14 percentage points, district statistics show.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg attributed the progress to a $3.8 million investment last year in early literacy, the bulk of which paid for a weeklong summer teacher training session that for the first time was offered to paraprofessionals, as well. The district also funded curriculum updates and a dedicated teacher coach in each school who specializes in early literacy.

Initiatives aimed at strengthening young students’ reading skills will continue to be funded this year and in the future by money set aside from a $56.6 million tax increase, or mill levy override, passed by Denver voters in November.

Standing in front of a classroom book display at Schmitt Elementary, a southwest Denver turnaround school that saw a 25 percentage-point increase in the number of students reading on grade level from the fall to the spring last year, Boasberg credited the DPS school board with making a big — and successful — bet on early literacy.

Boasberg said that while it’s to be expected that students’ reading skills would improve over the course of the school year districtwide, “we’ve never seen gains like that.”

The results are similar to those seen on the most recent state standardized tests, which are given to students in grades 3 through 9. More Denver third-graders scored at grade-level in literacy in 2016-17 (38 percent) than in 2015-16 (32 percent).

The DPS school board has set an ambitious goal that 80 percent of Denver third-graders will be reading and writing at or above grade-level by 2020. Research has shown that students who don’t meet that goal are four times more likely to drop out of high school.

A state law passed in 2012 called the READ Act requires schools to test students in kindergarten through third grade to identify struggling readers. The schools create special plans to help those students improve using a list of state-approved approaches.

The state provides extra money for students who score significantly below grade level, the lowest of three categories, and are thus identified as having a “significant reading deficiency.” Last year, schools got an additional $847 per student. Students who score in the other two categories — below grade level, and at grade level or above — don’t get extra state funding.

In 2012-13, the first year READ Act data is available, 26 percent of Denver kindergarten through third-graders were identified as having significant reading deficiencies, according to state statistics.

By 2015-16, that number had dropped to 19 percent. However, disaggregated state statistics show the percentages were higher among low-income and special education students, students of color and English language learners.

In 2016-17, a majority of DPS schools switched from using the Developmental Reading Assessment tests to using the Istation tests. Because of that, DPS officials said it’s not possible to compare within-year gains from 2016-17 to within-year gains from previous years.

The state hasn’t yet published early literacy data from 2016-17; officials said it won’t be available until the spring. But numbers provided by DPS show that just 15 percent of kindergarten through third-grade students who took Istation tests were identified as having significant reading deficiencies at the end of the school year.

That’s a lower percentage than in previous years, but it doesn’t include results from all of the tests. DPS officials also noted that the Istation tests are different than the previous DRA tests.

In a classroom at Schmitt Elementary, with books including Where the Wild Things Are propped up behind her, dean of instruction Carli Shock recalled the reaction of one of her young students when he scored at grade-level, denoted by the color green, on his Istation test.

“He said, ‘Is there something higher than green? Because if there is, that’s what I want to be,’” she recalled. “I learned a valuable lesson: early success fosters future success.”