Overhaul of a statewide program that helps students struggling to read at grade level

Colorado lawmakers seek overhaul for troubled $231 million program meant to help kids catch up on reading

The proposed changes follow reports that the READ Act, which has been around since 2012, has failed to produce significant gains

By Christopher Osher

(Originally published March 19, 2019, by The Colorado Sun

Senate Bill 199 would add significant state oversight into how schools throughout Colorado teach kindergarten through third grade students struggling to learn to read at grade level. It gives specific direction to local education providers that reading instruction must focus on areas of phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, reading fluency and reading comprehension.

“Evidence-based, proven science has not been applied routinely,” said one of the bill’s lead sponsors, state Sen. Bob Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale, on why the legislation requires schools to use specific methods when teaching reading. “It can make a big difference.”

It also sets aside $500,000 for a public information campaign to emphasize the importance of learning to read by third grade and highlighting school districts that have succeeded in getting a high percentage of their third-graders reading at grade level.

Requiring local educators to adhere to specific teaching standards on reading would amount to a major shift in Colorado. Early literacy advocates have long complained that they fear school districts are using curriculum that has not been validated through extensive research and scientific testing. In the past, officials with the Colorado Board of Education have said their hands are tied in determining what type of curriculum can be used due to local control concerns.

The text of the bill addresses local control concerns. It states that while school districts should be able to select reading instructional programs, it also was appropriate for the state to hold local school districts “accountable for demonstrating that the reading instruction they provide is focused” on the core areas specified by the state.

The bill would overhaul the Colorado Reading to Ensure Academic Development Act — or READ Act — which state officials have acknowledged has not produced the reading gains in young students that were originally envisioned when legislators funded the program.

The legislation would require each district to adopt a reading education program plan for each school in the district. The Colorado Department of Education would monitor those program plans and oversee them.

The proposal from the legislators also amounts to an admission that many teachers providing reading instruction need to have their skills burnished. It requires the Colorado Department of Education to develop a three-tier reading certification program: paraprofessional certification; educator certification and reading coach certification.

School districts would have to ensure that teachers and reading coaches become certified “as soon as practicable,” if the legislation is signed into law. The costs of the certification would be borne by the state. The bill states that “each local education provider shall ensure that educators employed by the local education provider obtain and maintain a valid reading certification.”

The proposed overhaul follows reporting by The Colorado Sun that revealed the READ Act has not produced significant reading improvements since it was put in place. Signed into law in 2012, the program delivers state aid to school districts to evaluate and improve the reading skills of students between kindergarten and third grade.

It was supposed to ensure that all Colorado students would be reading at grade level by third grade. But just 40 percent of third-graders in Colorado are reading at grade level now, barely up from the 38 percent who could do so four years ago. The lack of improvement has continued even as the annual cost of the READ Act has risen to $42.4 million annually.

The rate of Colorado students identified as having significant reading deficiencies also has remained stagnant.

In the 2012-13 school, when the READ Act was passed, 16.5 percent of Colorado students in kindergarten through third grade were struggling with significant reading deficiencies. In the 2013-14 school year, identified by legislative budget analysts as the first year of consistent data collection under the READ Act, that improved to 14.4 percent. The rate was 15.5 percent last year.

The proposed overhaul would require the Colorado Department of Education to hire independent evaluators to determine whether school districts’ use of READ Act funds is causing students to make measurable progress toward reading competency.

The legislation has attracted the support of both Republican and Democratic lawmakers. The co-sponsors include Rankin; Sen. Nancy Todd, a Democrat from Aurora; Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Democrat from Dillon; and Rep. Jim Wilson, a Republican from Salida.

Rankin sits on the influential Joint Budget Committee, which prepares the state budget for the full legislature to consider. He is married to Joyce Rankin, who is a member of the Colorado Board of Education. Todd is chair of the Senate Education Committee and a retired teacher. Wilson is a retired school administrator.

“Only 40 percent of our kids are reading at grade level at third grade,” said Rankin, explaining the push to overhaul the program. “It hasn’t changed in the years that this has been in place — eight years. This is a national problem. We’re not the only state dealing with this.”

A fiscal note for the proposed legislation has not yet been developed. The legislation also would require more of the READ Act money to be distributed as grants to schools. Legislative budget analysts have said READ Act grants to schools have produced better results than per-pupil intervention money that districts receive under the program. The per-pupil distributions have fewer strings attached and less state oversight than the grant money, according to those analysts.

The legislation already was attracting significant push back from local school district officials concerned over new mandates, said Wilson, one of the co-sponsors and a person with 21 years of experience as a former school superintendent.

“I’m the first to say, ‘Don’t put mandates on schools,’ but we didn’t put mandates on schools, and the results aren’t there,” Wilson said. “So maybe we need to revisit that instead of spending tens of millions of dollars on the READ Act and see what kind of difference we can make.”

Melissa Colsman, the Colorado Department of Education’s associate commissioner of student learning, said CDE officials were still studying the proposed legislation.

She said the legislation “has more specificity” in the instructional approach for how reading should be taught than any other content area in the state. She said the Colorado Board of Education has adopted similar rules for how reading-deficient students should be taught, but the legislation broadens those instructional standards for reading for all students and also ensures those standards would be part of state law.

“I would also say that state law trumps state board rules,” Colsman added. “In this case it’s raising the prominence of core instruction standards for kids to a level that is higher than what is currently in state board rules.”

The proposed legislation also would require that students with significant reading deficiencies and students who read below grade level would have to receive a specified minimum amount of educator-assisted reading time each day. In the past, school districts used READ Act money for summer schools, but state officials found that some of those districts used those summer schools for generalized instruction instead of for targeted reading interventions.

The legislation would require the Colorado Department of Education to monitor school district spending of READ Act money and, if necessary, audit the use of that money.

Senate Bill 199 has not yet been scheduled for a first hearing.