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6 takeaways from a $1.5 million evaluation of Colorado’s reading law

An elementary school teacher leans over a student at his desk while helping him with a writing activity.
A new external evaluation of Colorado’s landmark 2012 reading law doesn’t include a specific accounting of how hundreds of millions of dollars for struggling readers were spent.
Allison Shelley for EDUimages

Colorado’s landmark 2012 reading law led schools around the state to spend more time helping struggling readers, an external evaluation found.

But the report leaves some key questions unanswered, including a specific accounting of how hundreds of millions of state dollars for struggling readers were spent and which interventions actually worked.

State officials said the evaluator — San Francisco-based nonprofit WestEd — will continue its work and potentially deliver answers to those questions in the future.

Lawmakers commissioned the multiyear evaluation in 2019 amid growing concern that efforts driven by the 2012 law had done little to boost reading scores among Colorado students. They earmarked up to $750,000 a year for the outside review.

The evaluation, which has cost about $1.5 million so far, recommends giving some schools more time to adopt science-backed reading curriculum, and cites several topics that need more study, including strategies to help English learners learn to read.

“The READ Act has made some progress in terms of changing behaviors, not quite as much as we would like to see yet,” said Floyd Cobb, executive director of teaching and learning at the Colorado Department of Education.

He anticipates more progress as changes mandated by a 2019 revision of the reading law gain steam. That revision required training on reading instruction for all kindergarten through third grade teachers and more oversight of how districts spend state money earmarked for struggling readers.

The State Board of Education will discuss the evaluation at its August meeting.

What’s still unclear is how long the evaluation will last. WestEd described the end date as June 30, 2025, in one of its two lengthy reports, but state officials said the decision is up to lawmakers.

Here are six takeaways from the evaluation:

Read WestEd’s two main reports here.

Schools are spending more time on reading instruction

One of the top findings from the evaluation is that 2012 reading law — the READ Act — pushed schools to spend more time on reading instruction, for example, lengthening 60-minute reading blocks to 90 and providing 30 additional minutes of lessons to struggling readers.

The law also prompted more educators to use data from reading assessments to tailor instruction, whereas prior to the law, they may have used “their own judgement or impressions to identify student needs,” the evaluation said.

We still don’t know much detail about how the money is being spent

In 2019, just before the evaluation launched, Cobb said the review would provide a clearer picture of how schools spent READ Act money and which reading improvement strategies worked. But the evaluation provides only a general description of how districts spent the money — citing things like summer school, tutoring, or full-day kindergarten.

Previous public records requests by Chalkbeat have found that some districts spent READ Act funds on discredited reading programs, items that have little to do with reading, such as lip balm, or materials for students in grades outside the designated K-3 grade span.

The evaluation also doesn’t analyze which expenditures led to improved reading achievement, though Cobb acknowledged that was the original intent.

“When the pandemic started … we had to make some adjustments to the independent evaluation because what was intended originally were site visits” to schools and districts, he said.

Instead, WestEd gathered information through surveys and virtual visits, Cobb said. “That’s part of the reason what we planned on in November 2019 is a little different than what we wound up with.”

Krista Spurgin, executive director of the education advocacy group Stand for Children, said the report fell short of expectations.

“We actually were expecting a more in depth district-by-district and school-by-school analysis of how READ Act dollars are being spent and if those funds are being used to support scientifically backed approaches to teaching students to read,” she said by email.

“We look forward to a thorough dollar-by-dollar analysis in the next report.”

Cobb said it’s possible WestEd will do the deeper analysis of spending and outcomes in the next round of the evaluation, but the state hasn’t yet finalized contract details with the firm for the coming year.

The report recommends giving some schools more time to adopt new reading curriculum

WestEd’s first recommendation — to give some schools more time to replace state-rejected K-3 reading curriculum — has already drawn fire from some State Board of Education members.

The 2019 reading law update requires districts to use curriculum backed by science, and state officials have said districts that don’t make a good faith-effort to switch from state-rejected programs could face sanctions.

Noting that curriculum adoption is expensive and time-consuming, WestEd’s recommendation cites districts that adopted curriculum that was state-approved at the time of the adoption, but has since been reviewed and rejected by the state.

Board member Steve Durham said he’s opposed to extensions for such districts.

“Reading should be the highest priority that any school district has so they need to be allocating the resources to make the adjustment as soon as possible,” he said.

Board member Joyce Rankin, who described WestEd’s report as “a very fair and good evaluation as a baseline and a first step,” also disagreed with the recommendation.

“Some of the [reading] programs that are in use are actually detrimental to the science of reading,” she said, referring to a large body of research about how children learn to read. “I don’t think we need any more time. I don’t think we have any more time.”

State officials said last fall they would contact districts using unacceptable K-3 reading curriculum starting in late spring, but that hasn’t happened yet. Cobb said that communication will start in mid-August at the earliest.

Colorado’s process for reviewing reading curriculum is generally good

In early 2020, Colorado officials unveiled a new list of state-approved reading curriculum. The list is a big deal because districts that buy programs on the list can feel confident they’re complying with state rules requiring science-backed methods to teach reading.

While some educators and advocates have questioned how certain reading programs made the list (and how others didn’t), WestEd’s evaluation generally endorses the state’s review system.

The firm states that the education department’s “two-phase process for reviewing instructional programs is grounded in the science of reading and provides a rigorous and reliable way to vet these programs,” in its report on reading materials, which is separate from its broader report on the reading law.

WestED also found that the vast majority of 68 state-approved reading programs fully or largely meet key criteria required by Colorado’s reading law. (The programs include comprehensive curriculums meant for all students, programs that focus on one topic, such as phonics, and programs that target struggling readers.) Three state-approved programs only partially met the criteria, according to WestEd: Mondo Bookshop Phonics, Spell-links, and Istation Espanol Lectura Temprana.

It’s hard to measure reading growth because Colorado schools use so many different yardsticks

Colorado schools use at least 20 different assessments to identify struggling readers. Such variation means there’s no consistent method for determining which children need extra help in reading or how students are performing statewide, WestEd found.

Cobb said, “Because the assessments are different and they have different scales, there has to be some complex mathematical modelling in order to be able to get a clear understanding of how much student progress was made collectively.”

WestEd suggested convening a panel of experts to recommend changes.

English learners should be a focus in the next evaluation report

About 13% of Colorado’s K-12 students are English learners, and they are disproportionately identified as struggling readers.

WestEd’s report said the next round of evaluation should focus more on these students, pinpointing practices used at schools that are successful at improving English learners’ reading skills.

Some educators worry that English learners are being misidentified as struggling readers not because they have true difficulties reading, but because they are learning to read in a language they don’t speak at home, the evaluation found.

Evaluators also noted that while school districts want to receive READ Act dollars for those students so they can provide additional reading support, the state’s struggling reader designation — “significant reading deficiency” — carries a stigma for some English learners and their families.

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