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'Reading First' Panel Awaits Studies

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Is Reading First working?

With the 6th anniversary of the federal program approaching, advocates claim it is and critics say it isn’t, while others contend there isn’t enough information to know. A more definitive answer may be available when a handful of studies that will attempt to gauge the impact are released in the coming months and years.

Meanwhile, members of the Reading First Advisory Committee continued to express their dissatisfaction this week over the lack of adequate and clear data showing how participating schools and districts are faring.

The studies, the first of which is expected out in December, will analyze changes in student achievement, professional development, teacher preparation, reading instruction, enrollments in special education, and other areas since the Reading First program was rolled out in 2002 to improve reading instruction in the nation’s struggling schools.

“It’s the right thing to do to work with the data states have now to get a better understanding of [the results] of the policy that’s been put in place,” said Nonie K. Lesaux, a professor of human development and urban education advancement at Harvard University.

Ms. Lesaux is a member of the advisory committee that met here this week to discuss state-reported data on the program and learn more about the independent studies that are under way or nearing completion. “We want to work in the future on getting better data, and [these studies] appear to be thorough and well-designed,” she said.

The legislation that created the $1 billion-a-year Reading First, part of the No Child Left Behind Act, requires a “five-year rigorous, scientifically valid, quantitative evaluation” of the program that includes information on reading proficiency of students in participating schools, state tests and reading standards, instructional materials and classroom assessments, students’ interest in reading, and special education.

Studies on those areas are being conducted by independent contractors. An interim report on the program’s effects, conducted by the Cambridge, Mass.-based Abt Associates, is due out later this year, while a more detailed study is expected in about a year, according to Beth Boolay, the project’s director. Next spring, the U.S. Department of Education expects to release another study on whether reading achievement in Reading First schools improves more quickly than in Title I schools that are not in the program.

Other studies are expected between 2008 and 2010—after the program’s initial authorization expires. One will try to determine whether Reading First schools have reduced the number of students enrolled in special education due to learning disabilities. Initially, federal officials had hoped to gauge any changes in the number of students referred for special education services, but those data are not currently collected and would be difficult to get, said Beth A. Franklin, an analyst at the department.

Advisory-committee members questioned the use of existing data for that study. Ms. Franklin noted that the Education Department’s office for civil rights has collected information on special education enrollments over time, providing the consistent, longitudinal data needed for such a study. Those statistics, however, suggest that an average of 4 percent of students in Title I schools were identified as having learning disabilities. Panel members said that figure underestimates the prevalence of those disabilities.

“I think everyone would be happy … if that were a true and accurate representation,” said Frank Vellutino, a panel member and a professor of educational psychology and methodology at the State University of New York at Albany. He described the 4 percent figure as “worthless.”

Data Limitations

The advisory committee was formed by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and is charged with examining various aspects of the Reading First program and making recommendations to the department. Members this week again expressed frustration with the lack of clear and valid results on how students in Reading First schools are progressing. At the panel’s first meeting in August, members suggested that the state-reported test results for students in grades K-3, which states are required to submit to the Education Department, are difficult to decipher, and do not allow comparisons across states. ("Reading Results Hard to Translate, Panel Concludes," Aug. 29, 2007.)

While federal officials maintained last spring that Reading First schools were making significant progress toward boosting reading fluency and comprehension, the committee said previously, and reiterated this week, that the data used to justify those claims are inconclusive. ("State Data Show Gains in Reading," April 25, 2007.)

Some members were puzzled by why some states, such as Louisiana, did not provide complete information on the proficiency benchmarks used to determine whether students are meeting grade-level standards on state tests. The committee asked for a full accounting of missing data.

“It’s not that there isn’t data here that might be utilized,” said Susan Brady, an early-reading expert at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston. “But we as a committee need to put attention on the limitations of and raise awareness of the limitations of the data.”

Ms. Brady cautioned that it is not possible to make sweeping statements about the effects of Reading First using the existing data, but suggested the committee identify the kind of information that “would allow us to make these kinds of statements in the future.”

The Education Department asked the committee to recommend changes to the Reading First legislation to guide the pending reauthorization of the NCLB law by Congress. The committee said it would recommend that the law require states to provide test scores on individual students in Reading First schools over several years to allow for meaningful study of the program’s effects.

Committee members are also working to draft a definition of scientifically based reading research, which is supposed to guide the program.

Vol. 27

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