Colorado has spent hundreds of millions to help kids read. Now, it will spend up to $5.2 million to find out why it’s not working.

Colorado’s education department will spend up to $5.2 million over six years on a consultant charged with determining why the state’s 2012 landmark reading law failed to produce significant gains for struggling readers.

The unusual external audit, to be conducted by the nonprofit WestEd, will dig into how the state’s schools are using about $40 million a year meant to boost third-grade reading proficiency. The review could last up to six and a half years.

A state law passed last spring mandated the external evaluation and other steps intended to improve the 2012 law, known as the READ Act. The recent legislation came in the wake of ongoing criticism from lawmakers, parents and literacy advocates about the law’s effectiveness.

Despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent on reading intervention since the READ Act’s inception, just over 41% of Colorado third graders met or exceeded grade-level standards on the state’s 2019 literacy test. The percentage wasn’t much different — 38.2% — in 2015.

The act requires schools to identify struggling readers in kindergarten through third grade and draw on state-approved approaches to help them improve.

The planned evaluation marks a shift toward greater oversight of how districts are helping struggling readers and a new focus on ensuring the state’s money isn’t wasted.

The San Francisco-based WestEd will be paid up to $735,000 for the first five months of work, with the possibility of $750,000 a year for six additional years of work. Education department officials said contract details, including the exact amount WestEd will be paid, will be finalized in December. WestEd will start the evaluation in February 2020, with an initial report due by June 30, 2021.

Floyd Cobb, the state education department’s executive director of teaching and learning, said state officials have always maintained a list of allowable uses for READ Act dollars and asked districts to report broad information about their planned use of the funds. But the state didn’t have the authority to delve into districts’ budget details.

“In the past, there wasn’t any language that outlined that authority,” Cobb said.

“The department does not have data regarding how the [districts or schools] actually used those READ Act per-pupil funds,” state officials wrote in response to a question from WestEd.

But now WestEd will be able to ask districts directly how they used READ Act funding. This authority is so new that state officials advised WestEd that its staff will have to work with districts to figure out how to collect and format the information.

Cobb said the external evaluation “will give a clear picture of how districts are using the funds and will allow for us to understand better which methods are proving to be more successful.”

The READ Act was the only school reform legislation of its era that came with significant state funding. The lion’s share of the money — about $26 million this school year — is allocated to districts based on the number of students identified with serious reading struggles. These dollars are earmarked for expenses such as tutoring, summer school, literacy coaches, or reading intervention programs.

With around $835 allocated for every student with serious reading struggles in 2018-19, the per-pupil allocations range from $3.3 million for large districts like Denver to $5,000 for tiny districts like Haxtun.

A smaller pot of READ Act money goes toward three-year early literacy grants awarded to schools so they can revamp reading instruction for all students in kindergarten through third grade.

Cobb said he wasn’t aware of any other programs administered by the education department that have been targeted for an external evaluation as the READ Act is now.

“The READ Act is unique in the sense that there is a tremendous amount of state appropriation that is allocated to a very specific group of students,” he said. “That’s likely why there’s a different attention focused on it.”

That group consists of about 40,000 students in kindergarten through third grade — about 15.5% of statewide enrollment in that grade range. All are on special improvement plans required by the READ Act because they are reading below grade level.

In addition to mandating the external READ Act evaluation, the 2019 law allocates more money to early literacy grants and requires districts to submit more information about their approach to reading instruction and their use of READ Act dollars to the state. It also calls for a public information campaign about the importance of learning to read by third grade and, starting in the 2021-22 school year, requires all K-3 teachers in districts that receive READ Act money to have completed training on proven approaches to teaching reading.