Fewer Colorado third graders are reading at or above grade level, according to preliminary results from the state’s standardized tests released today.

The state’s schools saw on average about a 1 point drop — from about 73 percentage points in 2013 to about 72 in 2014.

While many in the state yearn for a spike, the year’s proficiency rate is well within the historical range of the last decade, and the state did not say whether the 1 point drop represents a statistically significant change.

Given growing poverty levels among students and years of budget cuts, “I wouldn’t think that dropping by 1 point is anything we need to be up in arms about,” said Sarah Hughes, research director for the Colorado Children’s Campaign. “But we want to see consistent improvement.”

(See highlights from this year’s results.)

Still, those who pushed for recent changes in the way Colorado schools work with their youngest students, including the Campaign, say they remain eager to see long-term improvements.

“The data helps shines a light on a huge problem,” said Reilly Pharo, the Campaign’s vice president of education initiatives. “One out of almost every two kids who are low-income aren’t able to read proficiently. It’s just terrifying how we’re supporting kids in early in their education experiences.”

Whether a third grader is reading at or above grade level is  considered a predictor of success during their primary and secondary education careers, Hughes said. Research has shown a strong link between students’ reading skills in third grade and whether they ultimately graduate from high school.

The third-grade threshold is especially important because fourth grade is when schools ramp up their expectations for how students should apply their reading skills to other subjects such as math and science, Pharo said.

“If [a student hasn’t] mastered literacy by third grade, it will cause a ripple effect,” she said.

That concern is part of what has prompted Colorado lawmakers to enact a series of policies to reshape Colorado schools since 2008. Those policies including the adoption of new standards meant to boost what is expected of students and an early childhood literacy law, known as the READ Act, that requires extra help for struggling readers.

When the READ Act is fully rolled out next year, students with significant reading deficiencies should have been identified by a series of evaluation tools and placed on an individualized reading intervention plan that may included parent support, one-on-one work with a reading coach, and targeted grade-level group work.

(Find your school’s scores here.)

Schools across the state are at varying stages of adjusting to the new standards, which are supposed to be in full effect this year, and adopting the new reading interventions.

At Haskin Elementary School in the San Luis Valley, that work is mostly completed, said co-principal Sarah Vance. Since being identified as a turnaround school in 2010, Haskin has implemented both the new standards and several literacy programs like Lindamood-Bell.

“It’s amazing, when kids learn to read, math scores go up, writing scores go up, and science scores go up,” she said, pointing to the school’s growth in reading and math.

For Haskin, it’s now about identifying what’s working, sustaining that work, and fine-tuning, Vance said. The school’s third-grade literacy scores jumped six points this year but are still nearly 10 points lower than in 2011.

“We meet weekly and discuss the needs of our kids based on the standards,” Vance said. “We’re constantly evaluating results and discussing interventions.”

That kind of work is also starting to pay off in some Aurora Public Schools, according to a spokeswoman there. The district as a whole saw a 3-point proficiency rate drop, but some schools avoided the decline.

“Eleven of our schools had significant increases in proficient and advanced scores,” said the spokeswoman, Patti Moon, in a statement to Chalkbeat. “We will focus on helping more of our schools reach that same level of success. We are now looking at the TCAP third-grade data to determine what factors had an impact on schools with significant changes. We will be using this data to target student learning moving forward.”

But how effective the new standards and reading interventions programs are remains to be seen — and likely won’t be known for several years, said Pharo of the Children’s Campaign. That’s because Colorado will rollout a new standardized test next year to measure literacy rates and the state’s education department just finalized the list of reading assessments aligned to the READ Act.

“The next couple of years are critical,” she said. “It’s going to be interesting to look at how the [Colorado Department of Education] is going to allocate its resources. Hopefully we’ll see another $17 million to $20 million to literacy above per pupil funding next year. We’ll see if there are gains in those investments.”

Results from other grade levels and content areas assessed this spring will be released in August. Math, reading and writing are tested in third through 10th grades. Science is assessed in fifth and eighth grades. Social studies is assessed in fourth and seventh grades.

2014 highlights

  • Both students whose family incomes qualify them for free- or reduced-price lunch and those who don’t saw about a two-point dip.
  • Districts with between 300 and 600 students had the highest proficiency rates this year, at 80 percent. Districts with between 601 and 1,200 students had the fewest proficient readers, at 69 percent.
  • Female students did better than male students. About 75 percent of female students scored proficient or above while only 69 percent of males students are at grade level.
  • About 56 percent of both African-American and Hispanic students are at grade level, compared to 82 percent of white students.
  • Forty-six percent of students whose first language is Spanish scored proficient or above on the reading test while 77 percent of students whose first language is English did. About 65 percent of students whose first language was neither English nor Spanish scored proficient.

How individual school districts fared

Statewide, third-grade reading proficiency rates have hovered around the 70 percent range since 2003. More recently, proficiency scores have ranged from about 70 percent in 2010 to 74 percent in 2012.  But individual districts have posted larger gains and declines.

  • Denver Public Schools saw a one-point drop in its scores this year, bringing the district’s overall proficiency rate climb to 10 points over the last four years.
  • Aurora Public Schools saw a 3 point drop in reading proficiency this year. A little more than 46 percent of third graders are at or above grade level, the district’s lowest rate since 2009.
  • The Center Consolidated School District of the San Luis Valley in western Colorado saw about a six-point bump, to 67 percent of third graders reading at grade level or above. Just 27 percent of students in the small rural district scored proficient in 2010, but 75 percent did in 2012.
  • Jeffco Public Schools saw a one-point drop. About 79 percent of third graders are reading at grade level.
  • Slightly less than half of all third graders in the Montezuma-Cortez school district read proficiently on the state test this year. That means the district has had a 10-point drop since 2009.
  • In Pueblo, literacy rates continued to drop. This year 71 percent of third graders scored proficient or advance on the reading test. That’s a seven-point decline from 78 percent in 2009.

(See how your school did here.)

Update: This article has been updated to provide additional context regarding a quote attributed to Children’s Campaign researcher Sarah Hughes. It has also been updated to clarify Jeffco’s one point drop this year.