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Early literacy rates within district improve through reading initiatives

Art by Kiara Tavakoli

According to a variety of standardized test results from last spring, PAUSD improved its early literacy scores. For example, scores increased by 4.3% in the Smarter Balanced standardized tests for third grade students. But some parents say the district isn’t interpreting the data correctly.

District officials said special focus on the students in the Every Student Reads Initiative –– those who have been historically underserved for the past decade –– resulted in the increases. Scores increased 15.8%, 16% and 8.6% for low-income students, those with disabilities and LatinX students, respectively. 

Director of Literacy Instruction Danaé Reynolds said there are several methods of assessment the district and individual teachers use in determining the next steps for a struggling reader. Reynolds said the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress is an evaluation of districts throughout the state. Regardless, Reynolds said the PAUSD Board of Education has approved multiple ways of reporting literacy results to the community, parents and their students.

“Instead of just measuring progress off of one assessment, we understand that our students are complex and therefore require more complex evaluation,” Reynolds said. “In addition to CAASPP scores, we turn to classroom level assessments, like tests or benchmarks, that go into the school gradebook and iReady, which is administered three times a year to give opportunities to show growth.”

As a computer adaptive test, Reynolds said iReady has the unique ability to categorize student levels of reading capability into separate domains.

“iReady will show student reading proficiency within those sections up to three grade levels above or below where they are supposed to be, which gives their teachers a clearer sense of how to continue focused instruction,” Reynolds said. “It also gives valuable insight on dyslexia markers that reading specialists can then begin to tackle with the students themselves.”

All test results, including the Smarter Balanced standardized tests and iReady assessments, are reported at the third grade level because it is the first year the tests are administered to students in primary education, and this age group has had the time to develop skills within the newly implemented programs beginning as early as kindergarten, ensuring that test results will accurately assess their effectiveness. 

During the pandemic, Reynolds said there was surprisingly greater accessibility to individualized education and access to one-on-one interactions between struggling readers and their English Language Arts teachers through breakout rooms, hybrid schedules and online programs.  

“We were able to continue our pursuit of improving literacy because of programs like Epic, a digital library with free access to books and Lexia, a reading platform that provided information on student reading levels through individualized, online computer games on reading comprehension,” Reynolds said. “These programs met the students at their levels and supported their development and growth, even off of campus.”

With the return to in-person learning last fall, Reynolds said the district is focusing on multisensory approaches like spelling out words on sandpaper and the Orton-Gillingham methodology of teaching phonics, which is a way of helping students decode the words they are reading, as well as help with their spelling and writing fluency. 

“It’s actually supportive of all learners that way,” Reynolds said. “It does not single out those who need more support, but at the same time, allows those who want more of a challenge to do so in the same classroom setting.” 

Despite the increased test scores and attempts to improve early literacy rates in the district, some parents who have looked at the data are calling for greater district transparency in reporting reading scores.

Two PAUSD parents, Dr. Allyson Rosen, a neuropsychologist at Stanford and Edith Cohen, a computer scientist at Google Research said they take issue with the way the district reported test results because the percent increase is unlikely to reflect real improvement on the reading tests. Since the number of students in the district fell substantially after the pandemic and there is naturally high random variation of student scores, the results are statistically insignificant. 

“In the PAUSD literacy case, the progress goals were set to 3% this year, which is too small with respect to the (natural) variation of the statistics,” Cohen said. “This means that we are nearly 40% likely to see a 3% improvement or drop just from this variation, and the progress goals are almost like tossing random coins.”

Cohen and Rosen said a lack of proper data interpretation can lead to the belief that these expensive programs are working well when the opposite is true.

“A far better approach moving forward is to measure average change in individual student scores rather than using the percentage of students meeting standards,” Rosen said. “That said, the district should be congratulated for avoiding major declines reported in other school districts across the state.”

They produced an online report, further detailing concerns about the issue.

Moving forward, Reynolds said the district hopes to see that by fourth grade, all students are reading either at or above their respective grade levels. 

“They are ambitious goals, but we know that our students are quite capable,” Reynolds said. “With (the help of) really strong instructional practices and foundational skills, we can continue to create opportunities for students to think critically and be curious.”

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