Thursday, October 15, 2020

AV#217 - Any progress on reading? What do we know? Part 1 (Grades K-3 and the Read Act)


Part 1 – (K-3) - Reporting on the READ Act that has not proved helpful.

Part 2: Grades 3-6 – next issue


We all want to see that our students learn to read in the early grades. And we know this is not the case for far too many boys and girls. Laws pass, new efforts proliferate, dedicated teachers do what they can.

The Colorado legislature passed the Read Act in 2012. Since 2012-13 roughly 40,000 K-3 students each year have received extra support thanks to the READ Act, boys and girls who struggle mightily with words, phrases, and sentences. Over $250 million spent. Still, we seem unsure of its impact. Has the hard work of thousands of educators, many working closely with the parents of these boys and girls, paid off?

We wish we knew. The Colorado legislature would also like to figure this out. Senate Bill 19-199 called for “an outside evaluator … to measure the effectiveness of the READ Act in all districts.” CDE has contracted with WestEd for this purpose, and the evaluation is underway.

I offer a critique here of two “studies” that did not serve us well in gauging the effectiveness of this effort. I hope this will be useful to WestEd and to all who seek a sober, objective analysis. No more cheerleading, and no more ill-informed judgements. The issue is much too important for that.

1.       “The Colorado Read Act – An Evaluation of Implementation and Outcomes after Year One” (2015) 

A.                                AV #144  (March 2, 2016)

                    Fulfilling the Colorado READ Act: 

                                 a steep climb ahead

   “… we do not help matters by overstating our ‘success’—if success it is—in our implementation of the READ Act… it is imperative that we be honest about the challenge—and about evaluating progress.”

    “What if school and districts that identify and serve a greater number of our struggling K-3 readers might actually be doing more to fulfill the purpose of the READ Act?”

The first assessment of students came in 2014, “An Evaluation of Implementation and Outcomes after Year One,” co-authored by the former Executive Director of Literacy for the Colorado Department of Education (CDE). The report, commissioned by Colorado Succeeds, along with a dozen other organizations, claimed success. “The READ Act is making an incredibly positive impact in the lives of thousands of Colorado kids after just one year,” we were told; “the number of students with an SRD [a significant reading deficiency] was reduced from 16% in 2013 from to 14% in 2014.” A dramatic drop in numbers, from 42,456 to 37,506 boys and girls, in one year.


My newsletter (AV #144-see Box A) criticized the report’s rosy conclusion. So identifying almost 5,000 fewer students was a success? Even when it was clear that there was great inconsistency in how our 178 districts tested and identified these students? 

That magical drop year one soon ended. The number of students identified as SRD in CDE’s annual report the past three years has climbed back up to 40,000, and the percentage of students with SRDs has exceeded 15% each year (see Box B). Those yearly reports open with a letter from the Colorado Commissioner of Education, Katy Anthes; they reveal how her concerns deepened over time. She wrote: 

2018 – “Results from the 2017 READ Act collection underscore the challenges in addressing reading deficiencies and are a call to a greater focus on early literacy skills for Colorado’s children.”

B.      READ Act – identified as SRD


Eligible Students

% of K-3 students










Figures above used in AV #144, March 2016













2019 - “We know there is deep commitment of teachers, school leaders, and parents, yet we still need to see much better outcomes in reading. Nearly half of the kindergarteners who were identified with significant reading deficiencies in 2015 were still struggling to read in third grade.”

2020 – “During the 2019-20 school year, Colorado school districts and CDE worked to understand and implement substantial changes to the READ Act set forth by Senate Bill 19-199… At that time, legislators looked back at the six years of implementation of the READ Act, observing that schools and districts were not seeing the dramatic improvements in reading levels envisioned when the Act first passed….  statewide data shows only a 1 percent reduction in the number of students identified with a significant reading deficiency (SRD).”

No more talk of celebrating early literacy gains. Mission definitely not accomplished.

Furthermore, the report’s claim about “shrinking achievement gaps among students from various subgroups” was unfounded. When it was published in late 2015, Colorado had seen its first PARCC scores. AV #144 began to look for signs from our state assessments from TCAP (2013 and 2014) and PARCC (2015) of better results by our 3rd graders. No evidence of “shrinking achievement gaps.” In fact, as I pointed out, the more rigorous expectations in the PARCC test indicated that our final TCAP test (in 2014), which told us over two-thirds of our third and fourth graders were proficient readers, had been far too generous. We were now learning that what the National Assessment for Educational Progress had reported for over two decades, that the majority of Colorado 4th graders were not proficient readers, looked closer to the truth. 

Meaning we had a lot more work cut out for us than anyone imagined when the READ Act became law back in 2012. Made only tougher as we grew uncertain about its implementation across our 178 districts.


Specific examples of how fewer students identified as SRD led to the wrong conclusion

The report recognized four schools “for their success in reducing the number of students with an SRD.”

It praised Denver’s Cole Arts & Science Academy and its “revolution” towards literary success. A table displayed the remarkable drop in total SRD students from 2012-13 to 2013-14. Was it really impressive to identify 24% fewer Hispanic students, and 25% fewer ELL and 25% fewer Black students as SRD in one year? In retrospect, perhaps it was a sign of a failure to identify and meet the needs of its many struggling readers. The school’s academic performance declined rapidly in the years that followed. It has been on Priority Improvement or Turnaround for the past three years. A mere 29.6% points on the School Performance Framework in 2019. Does Not Meet in all categories on academic achievement. 

The report also listed districts like Adams 14 as among “the top performers” for greatly reducing the percentage of students with an SRD, including the percentage of ELL students, free and reduced lunch students, and Latino students. Adams 14 received credit for cutting the numbers dramatically in all four categories–in total, from 685 students (30%) in 2013, to 420 students (18%) in 2012. The lower numbers probably meant Adams 14 had failed to identify hundreds of students who deserved extra support. More recently the district has identified 40% or more of its K-3 students (over 700) with an SRD—a step forward, except to those who tried to tell us that fewer kids identified equaled progress.


2.    “Colorado spent $231 million to help young children catch up on reading. But rates of kids with significant deficiencies only worsened,” by Christopher Osher, The Colorado Sun, Jan. 29, 2019.

If that first report failed to provide a sober and accurate analysis of the Read Act, The Colorado Sun’s in-depth piece in 2019 employed another kind of hyperbole. It used some of the same rising numbers in Box B, above—the higher rates of students identified with SRD—to smear the entire effort. “The READ Act still has not produced any significant improvement in the reading skills of the students it targeted.”

C.          2015-2019   English Language Arts/Literacy on CMAS – Grade 3


Did Not Yet Meet Expectations

Partially Met Expectations

Approached Expectations

Met Expectations

Did Not Yet Meet Expectations



















First, The Colorado Sun reflected an all-too-common misunderstanding of our new assessments by stating that “only 40 percent of third graders in the state are reading at their grade level now.” We had no evidence of that; CDE no longer provides this information (more on this next time in Part 2). The only statewide assessment of third graders since 2015 has been the Colorado Measures of Academic Success, which, unlike our state assessments from 1997 to 2014, has not given us the percentage of students reading at grade level. What the English Language Arts scores reveal (see Box C for ELA results) about reading skills versus writing skills is still unclear. 

Second, as those CMAS scores suggest, our lowest-performing students have, as I wrote in 2016, a steep climb to meet grade-level standards. Consider six-and seven-year-olds identified with—please stop for a moment and focus on this term—significant reading deficiencies. Consider that, as the 2020 Read Act report states, “approximately half of the students identified with an SRD also receive special education services for an identified disability.” When these boys and girls start so far behind, they can make significant improvement and still not read well by the end of third grade. Is anyone really surprised? Let’s create five “performance levels” for reading, much as Colorado does in scoring our state assessments. (Hardly a professional design, but it makes a point.) Put 15% to 20% of our K-3 students in that first box. 







Significant Reading Deficiency


Struggling to Read

Closer to Reading at Grade Level

Reading Meets Grade Level Expectations

Reading Exceeds Grade Level Expectations

Thousands of our K-3 teachers identify these boys and girls in kindergarten and grades 1-3 with an SRD, and then move mountains to help them climb from category 1, to 2, to 3 – and if possible, to 4: Meet Grade Level Expectations—before they leave 3rd grade. Hard? Of course. But not impossible. The 2020 Annual Report found that of almost 3,000 kindergarten students identified with SRD in 2016, over 50% were no longer so identified at the end of 3rd grade. How is that not producing significant improvement?

And many more students can begin to catch up without “meeting expectations” by a certain date. What of those students who move from category 1 to 3 between kindergarten and third grade, who are then well-served by their 4th and 5th grade teachers while keeping them on a READ plan, and head off to middle school now reading at grade level? Isn’t that a success? (CDE’s 2020 Read Act Report provides this kind of nuance that The Colorado Sun did not. See “Unpacking the State SRD Rate,” page 10.)

A nuance that WestEd, and all of us, must recognize in evaluating the READ Act, and especially in measuring progress for our K-3 students. Cheerleading and oversimplifying do not help. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

A writing assignment best done from home – DESCRIBE


by Peter Huidekoper, Jr.

Students home from school every other day, or all the time. Beautiful October weather calling them outside. Here is a writing task ideal for this time of year – and terrific for social distancing.

Here is what we asked middle school students to do, while on an overnight science camp—up in Deckers, Colorado. For many students, now unable to make such trips, a similar assignment might work well from home. Students in urban areas might need to walk to a park and sit down near some vegetation. It does not demand a huge space. To encourage students to focus on what they could see, hear, touch, etc., we asked them to stick to a 10’ by 10’ plot of land. Time will vary. We accomplished much of this in one hour.

Descriptive writing- observation – use of five senses

Our state standards ask middle and high school students to “craft arguments,” “craft narratives,” and “craft informational/explanatory texts using techniques specific to the genre.” (More from the standards, page 2.)

One element critical for many narratives and informational essays is the ability to describe.

Today’s assignment asks you to produce a paragraph or more describing a place. Use the five senses—as much as possible—in order to help your reader see, feel, hear, smell, and perhaps even taste what you observe in your “spot.” We will go outside and ask you to describe what you see, feel, hear, etc. in a limited amount of space—10 feet by 10 feet.

 Remember, the five senses you should try to include in your descriptive writing about a place:

  • the sense of sight (what you see)-words like silvery, spotted, round, twisted
  • the sense of touch (what you feel)-words like fuzzy, slippery, damp, slimy
  • the sense of sound (what you hear)–words like whisper, rustle, twitter, scrape
  • the sense of smell                               -words like rotten, fresh, mildewed, sweet
  • the sense of taste                                                 -words like salty, fresh, bland, sour

 Your task is to find a nearby plot of land of roughly 10 feet by 10 feet. 

Then follow these two steps:

1.       Look, observe, and make a list (ON PAPER) of details of what you see, hear, smell, etc.  Try to capture some aspect of all five senses in your list.

2.       Then write a well-developed paragraph (or more) that reflects all you see, hear, smell, etc., inside that 10 by 10 space. [Organizational hints: high to low, left to right, or by each sense.]

 [This part of the assignment would need to be adapted for those taking all their classes remotely. Sharing and commenting and revising can be done, even online.]

Once you have a draft written we will come back to the larger group. If we have time, you will share what you have written with two or three others, who will provide suggestions on how your description could be even stronger. Then you will revise your first draft and produce a stronger second draft. The goal is to have everyone produce a good final draft by the end of the session. We also hope that several will read their description to the whole group, or that everyone will read the sentence or two from their final draft of which they are most proud. 


 Excerpts from the Colorado Academic Standards

Standards in Reading, Writing, and Communicating

   “The Colorado Academic Standards in reading, writing, and communicating are the topical organization of the concepts and skills every Colorado student should know and be able to do throughout their preschool through twelfth-grade experience.”

Among the four standards of reading, writing, and communicating, #3 is Writing and Composition.

   “Writing is a fundamental component of literacy. Writing is a means of critical inquiry; it promotes problem solving and mastering new concepts. Adept writers can work through various ideas while producing informational, persuasive, and narrative or literary texts… As students arrange ideas to persuade, describe, and inform, they engage in logical critique, and they are likely to gain new insights and a deeper understanding of concepts and content.”

From the Writing and Composition section – Grades 6-8

8. Craft narratives using techniques specific to the genre. (Bold mine)

Grade Level Expectation:

3. Write engaging real or imagined narratives using techniques such as sensory language, dialogue, description and sequencing to convey experiences and events.

ii. Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, and description, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters. (CCSS*: W.6.3b)

iv. Use precise words and phrases, relevant descriptive details, and sensory language to convey experiences and events. (CCSS: W.6.3d)

Essential Question  -  How is word selection important to a piece of writing?

9. Demonstrate mastery of their own writing process with clear, coherent, and error-free polished products.

Grade Level Expectation:

5.   Plan, draft, edit, and revise as needed to craft clear and coherent writing that demonstrates a grasp of standard conventions for grammar, usage, and mechanics as well as a style appropriate for purpose and audience.

c. Uses knowledge of language and its conventions when writing, speaking, reading, or listening. (CCSS: L.6.3)

i. Vary sentence patterns for meaning, reader/listener interest, and style. (CCSS:L.6.3a)

ii. Maintain consistency in style and tone. (CCSS: L.6.3b)

d. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. (CCSS: W.6.4)

g. Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences. (CCSS W.6.10)

*CCSS - Common Core State Standards