May marks graduation season – a joyous time for most high school seniors anxious to start the next phase of their lives. But this year, thousands of students in Colorado won’t be donning caps and gowns alongside their peers.
More than 10,500 students left high school in 2014 without a diploma. Although the current dropout rate of 2.4 percent is the lowest since 2002, education officials agree more help is needed.
And to truly fight the dropout crisis – many advocates say intervention needs to start much earlier than senior year.
The Colorado READ Act was created to help young children who struggle with reading. According to many education experts, the ability to read at or above grade level before entering 4th grade is a critical milestone, and a strong predictor of who will ultimately graduate.
Colorado Lieutenant Gov. Joe Garcia helped craft the bill – officially titled the "Colorado Reading to Ensure Academic Development" Act. The five-year plan was passed by the state legislature in 2012, replacing a previous program – and allocating $15 million in funding to help provide resources for districts with struggling readers.
"It’s very clear from all the research that children who leave 3rd grade, who are not reading at grade level are far less likely to complete high school," Garcia said. "The common axiom is that children up until grade three are learning to read, and after that they’re reading to learn. They can’t keep up with even the fourth grade curriculum if they’re not proficient readers."
The READ Act requires teachers to assess reading competency several times a year from kindergarten through 3rd grade. If a student is deemed to have a significant reading deficiency, school staff will develop an individualized "READ Plan" for that student. The law mandates that the school make every effort to involve and communicate with the parents.
"Assessments are key because we need to know early on whether kids need extra help," Garcia said. "And if they’re not reading at grade level… then the school, the teacher, and the parent must work together to create individualized plans to address the student’s needs."
Garcia says when it comes to these intervention plans, there’s a lot of flexibility for local school districts to use an approved program or develop their own – but any strategies must include specific components spelled out in the READ Act.
While it’s still early in the program, Garcia says anecdotally, they’re seeing progress with at least one of the approved interventions, the Colorado Reading Corps, which provides AmeriCorps volunteers who tutor struggling readers.
"What we see is that kids who are working with one of the tutors – kids who are assessed as reading below grade level – for those students, by the time they complete the program, they’re reading at a higher level than their proficient peers. So they make dramatic improvements."
In addition to assessments and individualized reading intervention strategies, the READ Act requires extensive data reporting to the Colorado Department of Education. That data will help lawmakers determine how effective the plan is – and whether to continue its funding beyond 2017, when it will sunset.